By: Jennifer Niven
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2010
Reviewed by: Pamela Victor
Review Date: February 8, 2010
If the names Charlie Townsend and Kelly Garrett mean anything to you, if you can picture the lead singer from Wham!, if you have pulled on a pair of leg warmers or rolled on thick layers of Bonne Bell, then allow me to introduce you to your new BFF, The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town. Award-winning author Jennifer Niven has written a memoir that brings readers back to the 1980s, plunks us down in her Midwestern high school and delights us with the trials and tribulations of coming of age as a small town girl with big city dreams. As Niven writes, “Life was innocent, good. There was angst, but it mostly involved having a bad hair day, finding the next party, worrying about saying and doing the right thing, wrestling with geometric theorems, trying not to die of boredom, and wanting to be noticed by the one boy we all loved more than anything…It was a time when anything was possible.”
Readers profit from Niven’s propensity to be a pack rat. Amazingly, she has saved notes passed during class as well as journal entries, poems, songs and novellas she wrote, and even transcripts of phone conversations. The inclusion of these rare fossils of adolescent revelry and angst add immeasurable verity to her memoir. Down to the smallest detail – such as her pre-teen description of her canopy bed “with removable posts on top that make really good microphones” – Niven gifts readers with long-forgotten artifacts of teenage life. And she presents it all with laugh-out-loud, acerbic wit that brings to mind the style of David Sedaris. “I was the All-American girl living in the All-American City. But from the moment we moved to Richmond, I knew I would get out one day and go someplace bigger and faster, someplace where wild hogs didn’t roam the streets and where men didn’t eat the bark off trees.”
The Aqua Net Diaries guides readers in a look back on carefree days when complicated meant passing notes under the steely gaze of the Russian Lit. teacher and the worst day ever was reading “Jennifer McJunkin is a ho bag” on the bathroom stall. A time before life’s tangible disappointments began to carve away at the person you thought you would become. A time when you might still become a rock star. The author presents the memories of her desperate yearning to escape this prototypical (aka, boring) Midwestern high school through the lens of a sentimental adult with equal yearning to return to the luxurious selfishness and complex simplicity of teenage life. Niven captures this loves-me, loves-me-not juxtaposition with perfect pitch.
In The Aqua Net Diaries, we remember the challenges of high school, from the seemingly cemented social structure to the unchangeable cubbyholes each kid lived in. The impossibly cool kids, the “fun-loving troublemaker,” the geeks, the hoods, the jocks, they all seem jarringly familiar to us right down to “Martha Schunk who dressed in sweater sets and looked forty. She raised her hand repeatedly and told on people.” Though Niven sears these well-known characters with her wry humor, she fully admits to wanting desperately to fit in somehow, some way; certainly this is a sentiment that echoes in the majority of high school survivors. “These were the moments when it was hardest, when I wished I was small and blond with a mouth full of fillings that showed when I smiled like Jennifer Cutter who was crowned Homecoming Queen…”
At the end of the book, Niven turns the story over to the readers with a series of questions about our own high school experiences, prompting us to recall our funniest memories, our saddest memories, our most valuable life lessons. For Niven realizes that The Aqua Net Diaries really is about her readers as we revisit the happiness, the heartbreak and the horrors of our own high school lives from the armchair comfort and safety of adulthood.
Quill says: Take a hilarious and touching trip back to high school in the smart and sassy hands of Jennifer Niven!