TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Hooray for advance reading copies! "Suite Scarlett," Maureen Johnson's ("13 Little Blue Envelopes") latest book, doesn't officially come out until May 1st. I was incredibly lucky to snag an advance reading copy, which is basically an uncorrected version of the book in paperback format, typically given out for promotional or review purposes.
I cannot overstate how much I love all of Maureen's books. In an age of mindless chick lit for girls, Maureen writes novels where the heroines are smart, spunky, and with fierce independent streaks. But the books are also pretty breezy and light as well, and you can generally count on a big old dollop of romance mixed in, too. What more can you ask for? 😀
"Suite Scarlett" lives up to everything I've come to expect from a Maureen Johnson novel. Here's the basic setup: Scarlett Martin is the 15 year-old daughter of a hotel-owning family. Before you get any grand illusions of the Four Seasons, you should know that the Hopewell Hotel is a shabby, art deco hotel in Manhattan that has no staff, no guests, a creaky elevator, clogged toilets, and a barely functioning kitchen. It's summer time, and all of Scarlett's friends are off on adventures while she's stuck working at the Hopewell. Scarlett's parents barely make more than cameo appearances in the book, so the focus is mainly on Scarlett; her older brother, Spencer, who is a budding actor and physical comedian; her older sister, Lola, who dates a rich, dumb guy and works the makeup counter at Bendel's; and her younger sister, cancer survivor and all-around brat Marlene.
Scarlett has resigned herself to a hot, dreary summer when a very wealthy, eccentric guest, Mrs. Amberson, arrives for a lengthy stay at the Hopewell. Mrs. Amberson soon makes Scarlett her assistant, which primarily involves procuring odd teas and running strange errands, all in the name of Mrs. Amberson's unwritten book. At this point, I was so worried "Suite Scarlett" would veer off into "The Devil Wears Prada" territory, with an overbearing, demeaning boss ordering around a young woman. Not to worry. Mrs. Amberson, although a bit childish at times, definitely has Scarlett's best interests in mind.
While all this is going on, Spencer is facing his parents' one-year deadline to find a paying acting job, lest he be forced to enroll in culinary school. Spencer is a natural actor, so when he lands the part of Rosencrantz in a production of "Hamlet," Scarlett is thrilled. Ok, it's "Hamlet" to be staged in a parking garage, and Spencer will be riding a unicycle, but it's a real acting job, right? Even better from Scarlett's perspective, Eric, a handsome, seemingly sweet guy from North Carolina, has been cast as Gildenstern, Spencer's partner in comic relief. Eric will be spending lots of time with Spencer, running lines and practicing physical tricks and stunts, which is just fine by Scarlett. She likes the way Eric treats her as if she's someone special and magical.
That's probably enough of a plot outline. What follows is a sort of madcap, almost screwball comedy involving the staging of the play, the larger-than-life Mrs. Amberson, a misguided scheme to exact revenge upon one of Mrs. Amberson's old rivals, a budding romance between Eric and Scarlett, and some family angst. Yes, that's a lot to take in, but it also makes for great reading, since there's plenty of light comedy and a nice dash of sarcasm along the way. I also loved the interactions between Scarlett and her older siblings, Spencer and Lola. It's so rare to find siblings who are true friends in a young adult novel, particularly when that depiction never enters saccharine or artificial territory. Maureen has created a believable family where the brothers and sisters get on each other's nerves, argue, and yet still help and support each other. They actually like each other. Go figure.
I read this book in basically one sitting (is "devoured" too strong a word, I wonder?), which I believe is the way lots of you will read it as well. I think you'll love Scarlett's smart, resourceful character, and you'll find yourself eagerly cheering on Spencer's cockeyed production of "Hamlet." While this book has some flaws (younger sister Marlene seems like no more than a hollow plot device, and a few elements — the eccentric actor, absent parents, and romance that ends on an unsettled note — are recycled from previous novels), these are minor complaints when compared to the sheer enjoyment of reading "Suite Scarlett." I can't wait to recommend this to my young female readers, in say grades six and up. This one's a keeper!