Fliss, 15year old fashionista, private school attendee and Cher Horowitz wannabe is leaving the lattes and the Topshop of London for a 6 month secondment to the Welsh valleys. Not through choice, but because Fliss’ mum is recovering from a second bout of chemotherapy and needs the help of her frosty mother Margot; Award winning journalist turned smallholder. Fliss, managing as nurse and care giver perfectly well for the last 2 years doesn’t see why Margot has to get involved. Especially not in Wales, on a farm, in the middle of nowhere.
It’s one of the Olay signs of aging: when the period in which you grew up becomes a recognisable setting for period-ish novel. Set in 1997, Margot & Me captures the decade that taste forgot perfectly. Lilac kickers. Princess Diana’s funeral. Purple denim jackets. Lipsy. CD Walkmen. Keanu Reeves. Badger stripe blech highlights. Eyebrows the width of a single hair. Oh dear god the eyebrows. Juno Dawson crafts the setting of the novel brilliantly, in all its tacky glory. What on earth did we do before phones though? I appreciated the effort and commitment invested in whipping up the aura of the Girl Power era, it’s something that will pass by many of the book’s intended audience.
Frustrated by her constant clashes with the judgmental, scornful Margot (never gran or grandma) and aware of how fragile and tired her mum is, Fliss is not having the best time in Wales. She has no more success at school either, immediately drawing the attention of Megan, the tumbledown, backwater school’s skanky megabitch. Conceding social defeat, she throws in her lot with the misfit crew that hang out in the underground school library. Who turn out to be awesome and fun and supportive. It’s very Mean Girls, but with additional hot librarians.
Anyway. Marooned at her temporary farmhouse home, Fliss has to adjust to a slower pace of life. Whilst stowing some excess wardrobe in the attic, she finds a Diary. Thinking she can dig up some dirt on Margot, the owner and author, she starts reading. So begins the second strand of the novel’s plot. Along with Fliss, the reader is transported back to 1941, the year that 16 year old Margot was an evacuee, placed with Welsh farmers in the very farmhouse in which Fliss now finds herself an emotional hostage. The Diary Margot is a million miles from the snow queen in wellies and cashmere that Fliss knows and tolerates. 1941 Margot was feisty, passionate and razor sharp and brought a cosmopolitan sophistication to Wales.
The 1941 parts were some of my favourite moments in the book-I felt totally immersed in Margot’s Wales. I loved how open minded she was, how ahead of her time. She was glamorous and sassy, but more than willing to lend a hand on the farm or for the war effort. I loved how easily she got on with the townspeople and the other evacuees, how prepared she was to put up a fight for what’s right and how determined she was to not be a flighty, besotted drama queen, and how badly she failed. I absolutely understood Fliss’ compulsion to read about the younger days of her grandmother, to see the person she would have got on with so well should they meet at the same age. Unwittingly, she dredges up secrets and heartache and injustice- at a loss to explain how the girl on the page and the woman in the kitchen are the same person.
I really liked Fliss as a character and narrator. She's not a 90s me, but there is always something of the universal teen in JD's characters. The centre-of-the-Universe feelings, the dramatic martyrdom, the absolute conviction that dying of embarrassment or lameness is a legitimate concern. The earnest self-absorption. Though YA fiction professes to be for teens, I think post-teen readers can always get that extra enjoyment from hindsight. The 'Yup. I once thought like that, lol' aspect of teen protagonists. Nonetheless, Fliss is funny and sarcastic, and her inner monologue is a delight to read.
I loved this book. It’s a bit of a departure from Juno’s other books- which are all so sharp and modern- to something a bit more domestic and saga-esque. I liked how Fliss’ relationships with Dewy, Bronwyn and Danny were crafted, more familiar All of The Above footing, with funny but real life dialogue and dynamics, and proper, real character. I loved Margot- I am in awe of her strength and resilience and commitment to her family. The sacrifices she made, the pain she must have suppressed for decades- she is incredible. I love that getting to know Fliss, with her different sort of pain, allowed her to feel something again. Every generation thinks theirs is the most knowledgeable, the most admirable, but Margot and Fliss learned so much from each other. They were a great team.
It’s an emotional book, about loss and family and forgiveness, and about how the human spirit endures whatever is thrown at it, whenever in history and by whom. People persevere, they survive and they look out for that new normal and they live to tell the tale and to pass on their stories to the next generation.
Another absolute belter from the undisputed Queen of Teen.