Smart Girls Like Me is the story of Betsy Nilssen, a young woman living in New York on the cusp of the millennium (aka Y2K). She has an unexciting job at couture.com (a failing fashion website company), lives in her friend Zoe’s closet, and feels that her best friend, Bridget, is abandoning her by getting married (on a desert island, no less). She also believes that the world is actually going to descend into chaos come Y2K and so has begun spending more and more of her meager salary on vacuum-dried meals (half to stock up and half because she thinks they’re rather tasty). And, as if Betsy’s life isn’t complicated enough, the delicious Ryan has returned to the office from Hong Kong and seems intent on flirting with her as much as possible. All of this rolled together makes Smart Girls Like Me a funny and witty roller coaster ride through Betsy’s quirks and experiences as she navigates the waterways of her own life, discovering new things about herself and everyone around her.
At its core, Smart Girls Like Me is a journey of self-discovery. Betsy endures many life-changing events throughout the course of the novel, many of which seem rather unpleasant. The gratifying thing is watching her grow from these experiences. Simply put, Betsy is not the same person at the end of the novel as she is at the beginning. Vadino really puts forth effort trying to make Betsy as human as possible, with all the foibles of a real woman. The experiences she has, as well as her reactions to them, are alternately heart-wrenching and hilarious - sometimes both. The book makes me wish that everyone could react to adversity and grow as Betsy does; I know my life would have been much easier had I done so.
An interesting aspect of the book is that it is set before 9/11. It would have been extremely interesting to see Betsy’s reaction to those events, as well as to witness her ability to cope with the chaos New York was plunged into after the towers fell. Judging from her preoccupation with the millennium, it seems as though Betsy would have taken the attacks very hard and extremely personally. Perhaps that is why Vadino chose not to tackle this still-raw subject; the entire book would have had to revolve around those events. However, I would be very interested in a sequel which deals with 9/11.
Succinctly put, the best part of the novel is contained in the title: Smart Girls Like Me. It’s a book for women thinkers. While fun to read, it is not necessarily fluff. Betsy’s tendency to judge men on their grammar is a wonderful and hilarious example of this quality in the book. I think that secretly, many women (including myself) are guilty of this, and it’s not a bad thing. It is nice to have a book aimed at cultured women, rather than the lowest common denominator. That being said, it is an incredibly accessible book and not difficult to read at all.
Smart Girls Like Me is a fine debut for Diane Vadino. Though at times rough around the edges, it is a solid piece of fiction that is as enjoyable as it is witty and interesting. It is safe to say that many will be looking forward to her next book with impatience and delight.