Review: Sparks

Sparks by S. J. Adams

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As longtime readers know, I am an eighties freak from way back—way back being the original run of I Love the Eighties on VH1 in the early aughts, not, you know, actually the eighties. (Hence finding myself heavily distracted by the musical Rock of Ages at the moment.) Nonetheless, I somehow managed to experience the totality of adolescence without having seen a single Molly Ringwald film. Realizing that is how I ended up watching The Breakfast Club while having a sleepover in the theater department in college.

“So,” my friend Molly asked. “What did you think?”

I frowned. “They’re all assholes.”

Which, I think, is part of the point of The Breakfast Club, but also points to how much better teen films play when you yourself are a teenager. Teen films are a genre unto themselves. It can be easy to forget that, as young adult franchises like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games consume the multiplex and networks like the CW and MTV provide constant scripted entertainment aimed at teens, they were once the only major media site for adolescents to see themselves—and, in the way of all self-mythologizing, learn about themselves.

Which is why, despite my love for Pretty in Pink and every time I coo “Are you mad?” a la Ducky, I am beyond frustrated by the fact that the film lets Ducky’s possessive, stalkerish, and Nice Guy behavior more or less slide, even if I can identify with his painful disappointment and heartbreak. As teen films progress into the twenty-first century, so must their politics and representation.

Easy A is a fantastic example of a modern teen comedy, centering squarely around a teen girl playing with perceptions of her sexuality and challenging double standards. But teen comedies featuring queer protagonists are thin to nonexistent on the ground. David Levithan’s cotton candy Boy Meets Boy aside, most queer teen protagonists’ biggest conflict in mainstream young adult fiction is their sexuality. Whenever I’m working at the bookstore, I rarely see fun comedies featuring girls in love. Of course, if we do carry them, they’re probably not advertised to highlight this fact…

Which is why I loved Sparks so much. I read it on Anastasia’s recommendation: she described it as a John Hughes movie with lesbians, which I am all about. Debbie Woodlawn’s deep crush on her best friend Lisa is complicated by her liking girls—her best friend runs with a very conservative bunch—but it’s also complicated because Debbie has wrapped her entire identity around Lisa since she was ten. When Lisa starts dating Norman, the most boring boy in the world, Debbie realizes that drastic measures must be taken before Lisa and Norman seal the deal, as it where. Debbie’s quest for love is deemed holy by the Church of Blue—a fake religion composed of misfits Emma and Tom—and the new trio take a wild adventure during a hideous thunder storm for Debbie to declare her love.

There are a few things wrong with Sparks: the Full House references (it’s Debbie and Lisa’s special sitcom) can be cute, but often get gimmicky instead of meta, as in Easy A, and the treatment of Tom’s aggressive admirer can border on the slutshaming. But, overall, it’s a delightful and wacky ride both about girls in love (well, a girl in love with another girl) and a girl trying to find her own identity. I adore any and all stories about people finding themselves, like The Goose Girl or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Debbie does so with style and determination. I mean, she starts off by going to detention without a reason solely to find compatriots for her quest, despite her best efforts to curse her way into it. She’s painfully aware of her own lack of culture, due to a childhood listening to Christian rock bands and watching approved family sitcoms, but, over the course of the novel, she discovers an eagerness and passion for experiencing new things.

While the Church of Blue is patently false, as Emma, its leader, constantly talks about, it does offer both direction—zany objectives to complete—and a nice outlook on the universe—the spark of the title refers to a combination of style and talent that often works best in tandem with another person’s spark. And, save for Tom’s admirer, Adams’ universe is a pretty kind one. Debbie has some reservations about her hippie mother, but she still loves her. The flirty young things that hang around the local bowling alley are, in fact, a sweet and very helpful girl gang that just really like kissing people. The only villain in the piece is the threat of Lisa’s rejection.

And it’s very funny, when it’s not leaning on the Full House horn a bit too hard. Debbie hasn’t come out to her mother because she’s wary of her mother becoming too supportive. Her secondary love interest, Moira, refers to herself as a practical time traveler who tries to connect with the past as much as she can—by working in a bowling alley that hasn’t had any renovations since the 1970s. And Debbie’s determined voice is a hoot: “[t]hinking of myself as Debbie Woodlawn, the Bluist, made me feel a bit stronger, more like I had a purpose, than being Debbie Woodlawn, the weirdo who pretended to be a Methodist to pick up chicks” (194). What a great ride.

Bottom line: Sparks is a very funny teen comedy starring a teen lesbian desperate to declare her love for her best friend before the end of the night, aided by the patently false Church of Blue. I wish there were a dozen more like it and a film adaptation.

This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.

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