CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 9 . . . . December 22, 2006
The Candy Darlings begins when the protagonist and her father, months after her mother’s passing, move to a brand new subdivision, where she begins at a new high school. Now, with the possibility of a clean slate, her only wish is to be and to feel normal. And she never does tell us her name; it’s efficiently, almost imperceptibly, omitted from the telling of her tale.
She tries hard to fit in, and it pays off; at her new high school, the three most popular girls, Meredith, Angela and Laura, approach her. She begins initiations into their exclusive clique, and everything on the road to numb normalcy seems to be on track.
Enter Megan Chalmers.
Megan is also new, but she is different. Megan dresses to shock, she boldly (and wittily) speaks her opinionated mind, and instead of trying to fit in, she busts through social conventions with her very life force. Megan also loves candy. She hoards it. She consumes it by the seeming cartload. Candy is Megan’s lifeblood. Fated to become friends, our protagonist betrays Meredith, Angela and Laura (nicknamed MAL by Megan), and Megan and she become a tightly wrapped duo. Megan is a kindred, for she has also dealt with tragedy, her father having died in a plane crash years before.
They spend their time together teaming up against MAL, scheming about how to obtain more candy (for Megan has helped our protagonist to break her vow and to, once again, see the sugar coated light) and Megan loves to tell strange and disturbing fairy tales. Our protagonist, in turn, loves to be entranced by them. Megan and she also volunteer as candy stripers at St. Teresa’s hospital where they meet Edie, an elderly candy connoisseur and soul mate. Indeed, Megan’s rebelliousness rubs off. In addition to shoplifting sweets, our protagonist becomes defiant and troublesome to her grieving and emotionally absent father.
As time passes, it becomes evident that Megan’s story doesn’t completely check out. Mysteriously, Megan sporadically disappears without notice for a week at a time, only to arrive at home with a completely new look. She refuses to acknowledge that anything about this is out of the ordinary. Megan has secrets. But our protagonist does too: she doesn’t tell Megan that she is has a romantic soft spot for the school “loser,” (but truly sweet) Blake Starfield.
Eventually, the duo’s behaviour becomes reckless. After they pull a dangerous prank at one of MAL’s parties, MAL comes back with terrifying retribution. Soon after, Megan disappears again, and this time for good. Desperate, our protagonist attempts to piece together clues as to Megan’s past, and what she does find is chilling.
In the end, our protagonist realizes that she’ll never completely solve the mystery and find out the hard truth about Megan Chalmers. Reality, she’s learned of late, is a matter of perspective. What’s more important is that Megan and she found needed friendship and strength in one another. Our protagonist realizes that she can now tell her own stories, create her own realities, and live her authenticity fearlessly. She has also developed the perspective with which to face, and to move on from, her mother’s death.
For a first novel, The Candy Darlings is impressive. It is deliciously dark, courageous, unique and crafted intricately. It is emotionally layered and exudes sensuality. The imagery is vibrant, the characters are bold, and the dialogue is sharp, smart, perfectly timed and often hilarious. By the end, there is a satisfying circularity, a sense of coming together; all of the introduced ideas are woven in and tied up, although, aptly, certain questions are left for the reader to answer, which, indeed, keeps with the thematic integrity of the novel. Walde’s world is stylized, eerie and strange, while at the same time grounded in the realistic. We find ourselves straddling both realities with ease.
One, surprisingly, is not bothered by the amorphous nature of Walde’s protagonist – one may not even notice until the end that her name was never spoken. Perhaps sharp details and imagery, as well as Megan Chalmers’ largess, more than balances this out. However, it must be said that Megan’s vibrancy and hilarity certainly does, at times, upstage. And one does question the age and voice of the main character. Often she sounds incredibly wise and analytical for her age, and once in a while Walde risks telling the reader too much, even though she has already shown us with great effect.
No matter: one quickly forgives Walde for these small lumps. With The Candy Darlings this first-time novelist has delivered us something to savour. It is sophisticated, yet delicious and fun to read -- thus alluring for teens. Don’t be surprised, however, if severe sugar craving emerges by the time you’ve finished the book.
Caitlin Berry is a graduate of Vermont College’s Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She is also a guest reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine, and is finishing her first novel. She lives on Vancouver Island.
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