I wish I’d gone to a posh private school instead of a series of overcrowded, underfunded public schools. Oh, not for the smaller class sizes or the more demanding curriculum, mind you, nor for the social connections or bragging rights. No, my regrets stem entirely from the lost opportunities for the kind of schoolgirl mayhem that the upper classes seem to have such a natural gift for. Maybe it’s not too late; maybe, with the help of a plaid skirt and knee-high stockings, I could still manage to wreak a little havoc. But the naughty thrill of illicit, underage deeds is long gone – once you’re legal, things just aren’t as fun.
In Maxine Swann's Serious Girls, Maya is a sixteen-year-old girl whose terrifyingly rich and sophisticated grandmother insists on sending her to boarding school to counteract her provincial upbringing in the countryside. Shy and poorly dressed, Maya is swiftly dismissed by the other girls, who can sense her lack of polish. Luckily, there’s one other outcast at the tiny school: Roe, a dreamy and intelligent girl with just a hint of the Southern belle. The two swiftly become best friends, spending all their time together talking about their favorite books or discussing where their young lives will take them in the years to come. There’s hardly anything to do, besides wander through town or walk through the woods, until one of the girls discovers that students are allowed to take day trips to New York City by bus with a signed note from a guardian. Quicker than you can say “forged signature,” Maya and Roe have produced permission slips, and they’re off to the big city.
At first, their adventures are little more than girlish hijinks; they drink coffee in a small, greasy diner and browse through the shops. But soon the girls become bored and search for other ways of making mischief. Maya notices a handsome, slender man who frequents their diner; attracted by his air of intellectual melancholy, she decides she will seduce him. Blessedly unaware of the clumsiness of her efforts at flirtation, Maya flings herself at the man and embarks upon an affair with him, as much in love with the idea of the affair as with the man himself (Arthur, the world-weary editor of a literary magazine). Meanwhile, Roe takes up with Jesse, a scruffy punk-rock type who blows into town with little more than a rusted jalopy and a romantic air of personal tragedy. No longer are Maya and Roe inseparable. Their lovers have driven an awkward wedge between them, dividing loyalties, affection, and time. Can their friendship survive the difficult process of growing up?
Make no mistake, Serious Girls is a coming-of-age story. Somehow, though, the characters are even less interesting after they’ve gone through their various trials than before. Pretentious and self-absorbed in that peculiarly teenage way, the girls are virtually indistinguishable, slouching across the pages with languid, boneless enervation. Despite their desire for mischief-making, the girls seem oddly affectless and mostly indifferent to whatever happens to them. The effect is that of a living-room slide show, portraying the same dull figures in various exotic settings: here is a boring girl in the beautiful countryside, here is a boring girl on the streets of New York. It’s difficult to care what happens to Maya and Roe, when they themselves are so apathetic.
The plot is similarly unexciting, even for a coming-of-age novel (which generally follows a pretty formulaic story arc: feckless teen defies parents/society/authority figures, stumbles through hilarious hijinks, and eventually crosses the threshold into adulthood, having learned a life lesson or two). Very little really happens in the story, and since the characters aren’t exciting enough to detract attention away from the plot’s failings, it’s all too apparent that nothing’s going on. Swann’s writing is serviceable, and she does a good job of portraying the thoughts of a teenage girl; unfortunately, the particular teenage girl she has chosen to follow doesn’t bear such close scrutiny.
Remarkably bland even when it’s trying its hardest to be shocking and wild, this book might have been more fun if it had been called, say, Wild Girls, or Topless Girls, or Depraved Junkie Prostitute Girls. As it is, though, Serious Girls is both an apt description and an excellent reason to avoid this dull, heavy-handed slog through the darker side of teenaged shenanigans. Why waste your time reading about drunken schoolgirl mischief, when you could be out making drunken schoolgirl mischief instead?