CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2016
Thanks to his dad's recent promotion, Graham is beginning his final year of secondary school in a new city and a new school. He soon meets Ethan, who will act as his official guide, a punishment for some misdemeanour which Ethan has committed. Not only does Ethan guide him around the school, he insists on showing Graham where to meet girls and how to make an impression on them using his own "scientific rules". Since Graham knows no one in this big city environment and since his former girlfriend broke up with him just before the family moved, he is only too happy to be distracted and amused by his new-found friend.
Eric Walters helps his readers get inside the headspace of two teenage boys in a remarkably candid and engaging way. Graham, who has come to the city from Woodstock, is the stereotypical small town guy, likeable but somewhat naive, particularly when it comes to girls and relationships. Because he is anxious to fit in, he is easily led and almost conned into Ethan's game plan. On many levels, Graham knows that their escapades aren't honest and are entirely unfair to the girls the two teens meet. On the other hand, he enjoys the novelty and excitement of being Ethan's wingman in so many social situations. Eventually Graham matures enough to trust himself and his own judgement and realizes that he can make his own choices and be true to himself and still be attractive to girls. His small-town upbringing and philosophy and the excellent role models provided by his parents play a large role in Graham's coming-of-age.
Ethan is the antithesis of Graham. His father is a well-to-do big city lawyer who is divorced and is now playing the dating game once again. Ethan takes after his dad, glib and superficial in his dealings with those around him, particularly females. He is smooth and charming and can convince virtually everyone to go along with his schemes and see things his way. Readers get hints here and there that Ethan is nothing more than an actor, his own very clever invention. Only in the final pages of the novel do readers understand him a little better, get a glimpse underneath the carefully manicured exterior, and maybe, just maybe, get to like him despite his many obvious flaws.
Some readers might feel there is a lack of political correctness in the novel. Generally speaking, the various female characters appear and disappear quickly and without much impact, exactly mirroring their relationships with Graham and Ethan. The girls' role is simply to amuse the two teens, with little regard to the girls' feelings or to any repercussions from the boys' actions. The girls are simply entertainment, to be discarded when someone more interesting comes along. What saves the novel, in my opinion, is that Walters writes in a humorous and lighthearted way which portrays the two teens as "ladies' men" while poking fun at them at the same time.
Throughout The Art of Picking Up Girls (and Other Dangerous Things), Ethan's 'rules' are based on telling lies, faking information, and doing whatever else it might take to meet girls on a very short-term basis. Any relationship that is meaningful rather than superficial is apt to gain too much importance and thus be capable of hurting you. Graham has a distinctly different character and background and realizes that the only way to build a lasting relationship is to communicate as openly and honestly as possible. He is mature enough to realize that this doesn't offer any relationship guarantees, but he knows it is essential right from the start. It is noteworthy that when Graham does meet a girl who proves to be more interesting, she is intelligent and involved, and he realizes that his attraction to her is based on these qualities. He understands the importance of taking time to nurture and encourage an important new friendship.
Teenage boys – it isn't often that a young adult novel centres on what makes them tick from an emotional point of view. Emotions and feelings can be a minefield for authors, but Walters, like the balloon on the book's cover, is able to float above these potential dangers and give his readers an entertaining and engaging picture of what happens in the hearts and minds of two intriguing and challenging characters.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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