Impulse buys. I do not do them anymore with books. That is what the library is for. Right? Right?
Latest in a long line of books that aren't on the "purchase" list but mysteriously make their way to the checkout is Maureen Johnson's Suite Scarlett. I follow @maureenjohnson on Twitter, and I blame her continually amusing and enlightening tweets in part for this purchase. I like the way her mind works. I've read a couple of shorter things by her before, but this was my first foray into one of her full novels. It was an excellent choice.
Scarlett Martin is a young New Yorker, living in historic Hopewell Hotel with her parents and siblings Marlene, Lola and Spencer. The Martins own the hotel, and on their fifteenth birthday each Martin child gets a key to one of the suites for their very own -- that is, their own to take care of and clean. On her fifteenth birthday, Scarlett gets the Empire Suite, the crown jewel of the hotel. And while living in a hotel in New York might sound like a lot of fun, it's not necessarily the easiest of existences. Scarlett's friends are off all over the world for the summer -- and she's stuck with staying home and helping out at the hotel, for free. And on top of that, Spencer has one last crack at making it in his dream job as an actor before he has to give it up -- and Scarlett's going to do her best to help him (not just because one of the other actors in the cast is really hot, either). Then there's the appearance of a new guest to be staying in Scarlett's Empire Suite for the entire summer. This new guest has plans that are about to make Scarlett's summer a whole lot more interesting.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I really liked Scarlett, especially -- she's picking her way through the drama (literally as well as figuratively) and dealing with a crush, family financial woes, an extremely difficult little sister, and a supremely intense and demanding client. She deals with all of this in a very straightforward manner -- as she says at one point (I'm paraphrasing here), problems only go away if you face them and deal with them, and she abides by that. I am in awe of her ability to deal, being more of a squirm away and avoid confrontation and pain at all costs kind of person...
Her ability to deal, of course, does not prevent her from being hurt or mortified; it doesn't tell her how to deal with things. She doesn't always make the right decisions, and she will occasionally get into trouble. Her instincts are good, though -- she can see trouble coming. She just doesn't usually bother to try to get out of the way.
And that's Scarlett. I was trying to decide whether I thought this was a plot-driven or character-driven novel, and I've come out firmly on the character side, except that the plot is both zany and (surprisingly) believable. The other characters are well-done; none are set in stone, none are particularly boring, none are too over-the-top. Many come very close to too over-the-top. I think this is one of the things that astonishes me most as I reflect on this book: Johnson always manages to stay just this side of too wild to be true, which keeps the book grounded yet supremely entertaining. I don't know how she manages to keep that balance. That, and while being humourous and light-hearted, Johnson manages to deal with some of the pain and the confusion of being a fifteen-year-old, as well as some deeper issues like dealing with a sibling who has had a life-threatening illness, and the cost of medical care in the States. None of this is presented in a terribly noticeable way; this is the story of one girl's extremely eventful summer, and the rest of this runs quietly in the background, integrated completely and realistically.
One last thing to mention is how much I loved the family dynamic in Suite Scarlett. This is another YA novel in which the parents, though not playing a huge role, are supportive, invested, and interested in their kids. The siblings have their squabbles, and some get along better than others, but they're also family, and they clearly love one another. Even, perhaps, Marlene. This is the kind of family I recognize from my own life.
Overall, I recommend this book to fans of YA. It's funny, it's light, it's thoroughly enjoyable, and it's saved from being total camp by characters I could get invested in, and a deeper vein running through the whole thing. A perfect summer read as we're coming up to that season. I'll be reading more Maureen Johnson, and probably soon.