I picked up Joanna Pearson’s The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills because the audiobook is short, but also because it met my “Read a not-fantasy every now and then” goal. In it, Janice Wills is a high school junior in rural Melva, North Carolina who looks forward to getting out so she can study anthropology. Until then, though, all she has to look forward to is the whirlwind of culture that is the Livermush Festival, fend off her mom’s determination to enter her in the Miss Livermush pageant, and generally survive the perils of high school.
The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills is cute, light, and uniquely suited to small town academic teen readers who feel smarter than the world around them. Beyond that, it’s a pretty standard coming-of-age-in-high-school story, complete with mean girls, parties, friend troubles, first loves, disagreements with parents, and a climactic dance. However, the execution makes it stand out a little further than other novels of its type.
The book’s most unique detail—and what attracted me to it in the first place—is the anthropological lens through which Janice views her world. After all, how many books feature teen anthropologists? In North Carolina? Janice makes life in Melva tolerable by viewing it like a research project on a strange, unique culture. Sometimes the book pushes this interest a little too hard, but just when it becomes annoying, the book turns it from a teenage quirk into a legitimate piece of character development. Janice loves anthropology for what it is, sure, but she also uses her place as an “anthropological observer” to stay on the sidelines and make snarky comments (i.e. “truthful observations”) about her surroundings. For the first half of the book, she’s a queen of wallflower wit, but twists in the second half lead her to discover that her friends sometimes find her observations condescending, overly critical, and even mean, which was not how she perceived herself at all. She also discovers that, because she has only observed the world around her, rather than interacting with it, she has missed out on many important details that end up coloring Melva and its people a little more positively. I hadn’t expected that type of character development out of this type of book, and its presence was refreshing, even meaningful.
It was also neat to read about a self-professed geek who, though geeky, doesn’t understand the appeal of standard geek fare like Dungeons & Dragons and Cheetos. It’s not often that one reads about geeks who tend toward the semi-normal side of the teenage social spectrum, so that was a welcome surprise.
Speaking of positivity, said positivity was another element of this novel that I quite enjoyed. The book does have its dramatic spots—the school’s queen bee is a genuine queen b*tch; Janice goes to a party, has a few beers, and stuff almost happens —but overall it’s a very heartening book to read. Most of the relationships in the book are positive, if occasionally-challenged ones, and most of the interpersonal conflicts introduced have meaningful resolutions. Most notable is Janice’s relationship with her mother, which becomes a significant and amusing part of the climax, and the love triangle—well, like triangle—well, complicated maybe-like triangle between Janice and an old childhood friend and the school’s cool, depressed loner boy who doesn’t know she exists, was thoughtfully-executed. Some coarse language keeps it from being a truly clean read, but that combined with Janice’s story of self-realization (and resultant confidence) makes it a good read for any geeky teen girl facing similar conflicts.
Overall, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills is not a must-read. However, its positive elements definitely move it up the maybe-read list, especially for teen girls who can relate to its main character’s quirks.