The Following Girls- Louise Levene


Amanda Baker and the Amandas– four teenagers with the same name who call themselves the Mandies and share hidden cigarettes in quiet corners of the school compound- like to think of themselves as girls far removed from the perfectionist, idealism-applauding lifestyle of their seventies school. Resonating with the structure and composition of Enid Blyton schoolgirls, the ideal Julia Smith of the Mandies world is a lacrosse and tennis champion and a prefect. As she wields her short, short skirts (excused due to her exemplary behaviour elsewhwere) and the gorgeous golden thighs beneath like weapons to be envied by the remaining plain Janes, the Mandies hate her all the more for her ass-kissing tendencies and for being such a do-gooder. But something changes when Smith sees Baker with a “fag” in her hand on the morning subway to school and decides to befriend her eccentric school junior.

 

The Following Girls is a book about the life in a school in the Seventies in Britain. Africa is being carved right up and Ceylon is now called Sri Lanka, which can be distasteful but the schoolgirls pen unthinkable slang phrases on the backside of the toilet cubicles, rate looks on a one-ten scale and ogle at the boys after dressing up for them (a “shag” in the evening and gone by morning). The model schoolgirl is a sports champion who, after having mastered a sufficient number of languages (Latin, French, Russian), not to mention the matrices, needlework and geographical formations of the world , will go on to become a trendy bi-lingual secretary, having chucked her sports shoes out the window. The Mandies are different though.

The Mandies want to do away with this sort of mentality. Invincible together, they prefer blurring the lines between activities allowed and denied in school. While they struggle to stay right on the fence and not have a complaint raced to their respective homes, their parents are busy cursing fate for the behaviour of their daughters. Exchanging batches, sticky handshaking the alumni and adding ”actress” to the career counsellor’s folder for pure entertainment- nothing is beyond them.

I randomly picked up this book off a shelf and was intrigued by its soul-searching blurb. Books about life dilemmas are currently a part of my to-read list and although an unknown gamble like this did seem a little out there, it had been a long time since I had gambled on a book. Most of my recent purchases had been well thought out.

I didn’t regret The Following Girls one bit. Since I had no idea what to expect, I kept wondering what would happen throughout. Would the impeccable Julia Smith turn her glib talk into a trap for Amanda Baker? Would the absent Mrs Baker who ran off when Amanda was three make a re-entry of some sort or the step-mother Spam become far more monstrous than a dream kitchen assembling, secret sherry drinker? Would Mr. Baker’s tempers turn over a new leaf? Would something colossal happen to Amanda?

Although the book didn’t create suspense or magic of that sort, it was a book about transitions and that made me like it. Would the real Amanda please stand up? As it turns out, life can be taken in little, manageable doses.

The only reason the book lost one star in my head was the fact that sometimes the acerbic tones of the Mandies seemed to fizzle through the pages so hard and fast that they seemed fictional. The whole reality fell apart in those places, even if I tried to see it through the eyes of disturbed teenagers.

Heavy on references, resounding with vintage recollections and tilted to match the skewed outlook of a 70s schoolgirl, The Following Girls is a book you can definitely read and enjoy.

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