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Book Review: earthgirl

February 18th, 2009     by Stark Koenig     Comments

Jennifer Cowan’s debut novel, due to be released in April, follows the journey of sixteen year old Sabine, aka “Bean”, aka “earthgirl”, from her status as a regular kid hanging out with her “grrlz” to her realization of a new, eco-warrior identity. Spurred to action by the wayward and messy leftovers of a Chicken McNugget meal thrown out the window of an SUV and all over her hoodie, Sabine declares immediate and all-encompassing war on the uberconsumerist society which she has until this moment accepted without much question.

Sounds like a fun premise. The execution, sadly, leaves a bit to be desired.

The novel combines first-person narrative prose with Sabine’s blog entries to take the reader through her journey. Unfortunately, the prose and the blog author voice are insufficiently different to make real use of the interplay between the two styles. Much of the action is driven by dialogue without contextual description; it is no surprise that Cowan’s resume consists mostly of scriptwriting for teen dramas. In the end the novel reads a bit like an instruction manual written by a 16-year-old on how to go from zero to eco-warrior in a week.

Cowan’s experience in the TV field does serve her well in terms of characterization, at least for the main characters: Sabine is a very believable 16-year-old, as is her new eco-conscious boyfriend, Vray. Sadly, however, the rest of the cast are stock characters whose interactions with Sabine serve only to antagonize her and to construct new soapboxes for her to climb on each chapter.

Particularly disturbing is Sabine’s tendency to characterize the other teen girls in her school as mindless consumers, “scary” anorexics and bitchy queen bees. The “scary” anorexic isn’t scary; she’s sick. One would hope that in a book that tries to attack so many other social injustices, the narrator bringing these issues to our attention would be able to address the ways that young women are taught to hate each other—-and themselves—-as well.

That is not the case, however. Sabine repeatedly refers to herself as emerging from the former status of being “some silly, shallow girl”. Such silly, shallow girls, include the two young women who were her best friends until she alienated them by constantly criticizing their choices. The two friends are not characterised much beyond being ardent shopaholics, one of whom is a bit bossy and the other sweet but dumb. Unsurprisingly, Sabine is not too depressed about losing them, and constantly consoles herself with her moral superiority and her happy new relationship with her environmentalist boyfriend.

Her parents and sister are no better, always antagonizing her about her attempts to change the wasteful practices employed in their household. I found their interactions a bit outlandish; even some of the most ardent ozone hole deniers have accepted that microwaving plastic probably isn’t the best thing for you or for the environment. Sometimes the opposition seemed a bit forced.

There is also quite a difference between how the female and male characters are depicted. The young women are brainless, silly and shallow. The boys are characterised as more knowledgeable and thoughtful. Sabine’s crush object (pre-boyfriend) at one point admires Sabine for her actions, commenting that he had thought she was just another one of “the clones”. This line is very telling as to the characterisations of males and females in this novel.

Even at the end of the novel, when Vray has gone too far with his activism and alienated Sabine herself, she breaks it off with him, but notes that somewhere in him there is a kind, intelligent guy. Too bad she can’t afford the same consideration to her girlfriends.

Tags: bibliothèque

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