September 2005

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

Weetzie Bat Grows Up

As a Young Adult book, Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat was distinguished by its edginess. It was unusually matter-of-fact, full of punk rock and sex and glittery grit. Everything sparkled but wasn’t always pretty. I was lucky to discover it when I was actually part of the YA target demographic, a few years after its publication in 1989. At its center was the title character, “a skinny girl with a bleach blonde flat top” who hates high school. Weetzie meets Dirk, her future best friend, in art class, when he compliments her feathered headdress (“Thanks, I made it,” she said, snapping her strawberry bubble gum. “I’m into Indians. They were here first and we treated them like shit.”). In the years that followed, there were four more books in the series, tracing the further adventures of Weetzie and crew. The last was published in 1995.

Necklace of Kisses, released last month, is a continuation of the saga that began with Weetzie Bat and is the first Weetzie book aimed at adults. With its shiny pink cover and pseudo-sexy title, it looks right at home on the chick lit table at your neighborhood chain bookstore. It just happens to be an incredibly smart and absorbing read.

When it opens, we learn that Max, the love of Weetzie’s life, has sunk into a deep post-September 11th depression, and that they haven’t shared any of their trademark kisses since the towers fell. Still in love with him but unwilling to let his sadness take over her own life, Weetzie packs a bag and takes temporary refuge at the Pink Hotel, a place of luxury and mystery where she hopes to sort things out.

It’s risky to revisit a beloved heroine as she approaches middle age. But it’s also brave, showing readers that they -- and the literary characters they identify with -- can grow up without losing their spark. (“I’ve wondered about Botox,” Weetzie admitted. “But I think it is pretty gross. I can’t bring myself to really inject botulism or cow toxins or whatever it is into my face.”) I was worried that the book might be too sentimental, and also that the promised fantastical elements might prove to be a little too fantastic. Luckily, Block manages to weave elements of magic throughout the book with as much frequency and sincerity as her pop cultural details, and together they only make Weetzie’s world more real, and her dilemmas richer.

All the major characters from the earlier books make appearances: Weetzie’s (now college-age) daughters reprimand their mother for not dressing her age while they raid her closet, Ping Chong Jah-Love is Weetzie’s business partner, Dirk still her best friend. Rather than coming off as a contrived response to current events, Max’s depression is the natural extension of his dark moods from the first book. Against this busy backdrop, Weetzie is understandably haunted by the past. In a key scene midway through the book, Dirk shows up at the Pink Hotel unannounced. “You smell like our whole life,” he whispers to Weetzie as they hug.

The cast of supporting characters includes a chambermaid who is literally invisible, a woman who can spin webs out of her body, and a desk clerk who has turned blue from sadness. We also meet a real mermaid who has been surgically carved into the shape of a living Barbie, a woman on the run from relatives trying to steal her child, and a dazzling drag queen. Block has a particular talent for transforming her observations about women’s lives into physical metaphors like these.

Necklace of Kisses is proof that a book about a woman who goes to parties and loves fashion can also celebrate her intelligence. It shows that there is nothing inherently bad about many of chick lit’s pettier obsessions. Weetzie may stumble in her hot pink stilettos, but she is never a victim. Despite her magical surroundings, she is not presented as a naïve character, but as one willing to be surprised. Her mistakes aren’t offered up for ridicule, and readers’ ability to identify with her isn’t based on shared shortcomings or embarrassments (à la, say, Bridget Jones). Block does not make men out to be a completely alien species. She does not position motherhood as the be all and end all of life and personality. She manages a happy ending while embracing the messiness of her characters’ lives.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets it. A Booklist review praising Necklace noted that “the self-parody is as wonderful as ever -- Weetzie doesn’t have to save the world; she can just go shopping.” That the book is in no way a self-parody and does not ever posit shopping as an alternative to saving the world is almost beside the point. Chick lit’s gooey lipstick marks are all over statements like this one. Lately the genre has driven the market for books perhaps more than any other, while simultaneously claiming that the books shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Since it is disguised as chick lit -- intentionally or not -- Necklace of Kisses is in a position to challenge this.

Block’s stories have always relished the nuances of “having it all.” In Weetzie’s technicolor Los Angeles, this ideal doesn’t mean the usual house and husband and kids, but strong relationships, satisfying work, and a rewarding creative life. Magic is found in complexity. It’s truly gratifying to see Weetzie still kicking around in this gorgeous confection of a book.

Necklace of Kisses by Francesca Lia Block
HarperCollins
ISBN: 0060777516
240 Pages