by Liz Tipping
Review by Pat Black
Liz Tipping’s second novel Don't You Forget About Me is a girl-gets-together-with-boy affair, so you can expect a spot of the warm fuzzies. You can’t assume a happy ending in anything these days, though, and it wouldn’t be a love story if the course ran smooth. I think someone once said something about that - Nik Kershaw or Howard Jones, I forget. All in all it’s a lovely cup of hot chocolate before you head to bed.
The title alludes to Simple Minds, and by extension the John Hughes teen movies of the 1980s. Cara, the narrator, is more of a child of the nineties, but this means she was weaned on the classic home video rentals of the decade before. This was when Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club ruled the roost, and Cara uses these movies as a comfort blanket whenever her life hasn’t gone to plan. And in general, it hasn’t.
Cara has stuck it out in one of the few remaining Blockbuster branches in the country, a symbol of an industry which technological progress has rendered redundant. Cara is heading for redundancy, too, as the curtain comes down on the video shop. She is very creative and has training in events management, but just hasn’t made the leap in her career. This is a recurring theme for Cara, who seems to have run into something of a roadblock in her schooldays. When she recalls these times, this is where the novel got really interesting for me.
It was a reminder of how tough your teenage years can be at school. There’s the paranoia of your clothing, your hairstyle, and being constantly judged over them; and then there’s the type of bullying which isn’t quite as bad as a punch in the chops, but can leave a much nastier wound which turns into a lifelong scar. Cruel nicknames, for instance – Cara is known as “the bag lady” by her school year’s alpha bitch and her cohorts, owing to some insalubrious accessorising, so the name sticks. There’s also the bitching and whispering campaigns, which can blight the boys as well as the girls.
Remember also, if you can bear it, when you were the aggressor. You’ll call to mind the silly things you might have said about a person for a laugh, which can be intensely hurtful. I spoke to one old school friend recently who reminded me that I’d once called this harmless lad who had big ears “20,000 Lugs Under The Sea” before swimming practice. My mate actually congratulated me for this piece of patter which he’d remembered for a quarter of a century. Like it was something I should be given a handshake or a slap on the back for.
I was mortified by this memory of my own demoniacal cruelty, that needless nastiness of youth. That guy might still harbour a grudge, and I wouldn’t blame him if he did. One dark night he might kick my front door in and seek revenge, his gigantic ears unfurling like some kung-fu Dumbo.
But my teenage guilt aside, Liz Tipping gets this stuff absolutely right. Cara suffers in the present day for what’s gone on in the past. It tends to linger once the school gates clang shut behind you for the last time. This gives her novel and her main character lovely texture, and we invest a great deal of sympathy in her.
Cara is looking for her Moment. Like at the end of Pretty In Pink, when Molly Ringwald dazzles in the spotlight at last, or when Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson kiss in the car park in The Breakfast Club. Cue Simple Minds; and credits.
She gets her chance – there’s going to be a school reunion, attended not only by her schoolyard nemesis who christened her “the bag lady”, but also Daniel Rose, her teenage unrequited love, the lad she adored but who didn’t give her a second glance.
Cara’s teenage crush has aged very well, it seems... but she’s done not too badly either, judging by his reaction to her when he meets her in the street.
Cara decides she wants to right some wrongs. But she’ll need some help, not least from her workmate in the video shop, and also her best mate, the solid-and-reliable-and-quite-dishy Stubbs.
The course of the plot won’t be a massive surprise to anyone, but the “courtship” parts, where two people who should really be together who are chasing different people start to realise they should really be together, were terrific. There’s a brilliant but frustrating part where Cara plus a significant other have a smashing day out at the seaside, winning teddies in the amusements, but they just don’t… they can’t seem to… “For god’s sake, kiss him!”
By that part I was hooked, and also horrified – wondering if Tipping would follow Pretty In Pink’s plot, and deny her heroine her true love, in favour of the shiny boy she was fixated on.
The day at the seaside touches on another thing I loved about the book. There is no conspicuous consumption in it. Cara doesn’t have a lot of money, and nor does anyone else she knows. They socialise at a club where you drink beer from cans, poured into a plastic pint tumbler, and you mingle easily with the pensioners playing bingo. It had authenticity, which isn’t the first quality I’d associate with this genre.
One thing which puts me off modern romance novels is that some still seem to be hooked into consumerism, particularly shopping, and catching the eye of some rich bloke. (Admittedly this prejudice is based on my experience of the books an ex used to read in the early noughties – a different geological era in terms of financial climate.) There’s nothing wrong with good old fantasy, and I guess we’ve all wished we were rich at some point, or perhaps that we could spend an evening or two with someone who was. But Cara’s life and ambitions struck a chord with me. The romance felt truer because of it – taking pleasure in life’s wee miracles, like fish and chips shared out of the wrapper on a seafront, or laughter over the silly characters you run into every day in your working life (“Have you got Free Willy?”).
The book is never preachy about it, but it is not concerned with wealth, or the acquisition of it. Cara does have talent, though, and it is harnessed before the end as she hatches a plan for a pop-up cinema event which heads for a climax as shiny bright as the school reunion. Apart from that, Cara lives modestly – she seeks out her showstopping dress and a certain pink cardigan second hand. It was a fine antidote to the likes of the Sex and the City girls, who shifted focus from beautifully acidic analyses of their menfolk to buying piles of shoes in Dubai – not a crime, of course, but they lost a bit of what people loved about them in the transition.
And so to the ending… it’s perfect. I shouldn’t say if Cara ends up with her Ducky, because that didn’t happen to Molly Ringwald’s character… but all loose ends are tied up with a nice pink ribbon. Now that’s how you finish a novel. It’s as satisfying as when Popeye Doyle zaps Charnier at the end of The French Connection 2. Cut and print. No further questions. Cue Simple Minds; and credits.
Read the author interview with Liz Tipping here.