Pants on Fire
Pants on Fire is one of Meg Cabot’s stand-alone titles and was published in Great Britain as Tommy Sullivan Is a Freak. While it does not quite achieve the near-perfection of Teen Idol, my all-time favorite stand-alone YA title by Cabot, it is still a compelling read with a remarkably imperfect heroine.
At the beginning of her last year in high school, Katie Ellison seems to live a charmed life. She is top of her class and well on the way to making her hobby, photography, into her future career. She likes her job waitressing at the Gull’n’Gulp, Eastport’s most popular restaurant. Her boyfriend Seth is the star of the football team and has the most kissable lips in town. Her best friend Sidney is extremely beautiful and popular, and Katie gets invited to all the best parties. Even her family life is as harmonious as can be with a younger brother who likes to tease her.
We quickly find out that not all is well with Katie. Her relationship with Seth bores her and she has taken to making out secretly with a boy from the drama group. Although she hates quahogs, the local crab specialty, she has entered a beauty contest for the title of Quahog Princess for financial reasons. There is a great deal of calculation in her seemingly perfect life, and the price she pays is hypocrisy and increasing self-disgust.
Then Tommy Sullivan comes back to town after an absence of more than three years. He and Katie used to be best friends, of the nerdy sort, and aspiring co-journalists with the school paper. One day in eighth grade Tommy uncovered a scandal involving the generally revered football team, and went public, with dramatic results. He was ostracized, with even Katie dropping him like a hot potato, and after “Tommy Sullivan Is a Freak” was written on the gym wall one night, his family left town. Now he is back, and Katie is terrified that he will want revenge for her betrayal. At the same time she is wildly attracted to him.
Katie, in contrast to other Cabot heroines, is not just repressed but actively devious and hypocritical. I never thought I would feel for a teenage heroine who not only cheats on her boyfriend, but actually makes a pass at a third guy at the same time, yet I did – the first person narrative is very effective here. Both social ambition and hormones drive Katie, and being clever and manipulative, she has succeeded beyond her wildest middle-school-nerd dreams. Now she is loath to lose what she has achieved and not able perceive how her successes constrict her until Tommy tells her so. It was highly refreshing to read about such a heroine in a YA novel.
Tommy starts off as a very enigmatic character. Because we see him only through Katie’s panicked perception, we have no idea for a long time what makes him tick and why he really returned to Eastport. When we do find out, we realize he is a very strong person – in fact, he is the only one who sees behind Katie’s façade and makes her face several uncomfortable truths – but I would have liked to see more facets of him.
The minor characters are a joy, as is usual for Cabot. Many of them start off as types only to reveal unexpected sides to their characters as the story progresses. There are some funny scenes with Katie’s co-workers, with the beauty contest, with her brother and his teenage admirers, and, most of all, with Katie’s inner struggles between what she ought to do and what she is about to do. But because Katie is so messed-up and what happened to Tommy earlier was so bad, the book struck me as more serious than other Meg Cabot novels.
All in all, Pants on Fire is a well-written novel about a deeply flawed girl, which manages to be both funny and uncomfortable, because it pinpoints certain aspects of teenage society with great accuracy and does not offer an ending in which all good is rewarded and evil punished. Because Tommy’s character remained too enigmatic to me, it’s not quite perfect, but I earns a very strong recommendation indeed.