Neither half knew that the other half knew anything about it and so there was no possibility to talk about it openly, even if they had been capable of frank, honest, emotional discussions — which they weren't. ~from Popular by Gareth RussellReleased in July 2011, Popular by Northern Irish writer Gareth Russell, is a scathingly witty and humorous romp dealing with privileged teenagers in Belfast. Now I must admit that before meeting Gareth and reading his novel I had a quite different picture of Belfast than I have now. Most of what I knew about Northern Ireland were the news stories of civil strife and terroristic violence which I heard throughout my life, and which made me resolve never to go there.
In Popular, however, Belfast is not the Irish version of the Middle East as Americans tend to visualize it. Instead, Popular's Belfast is the Paris of the British Isles, a city full of glamorous and exclusive shops and restaurants, elegant homes, and *fabulous* balls and parties which the Romanovs themselves would have relished. The "Troubles" which haunted Northern Ireland for over thirty years, resulting in the deaths of over 3500 people, with occasional eruptions even today, are absent, which serves to heighten the bold frivolity of the teenagers' lives. Protestants and Catholics go to school side by side. The world inhabited by Meredith Harper and her friends Imogen, Kerry, Catherine and Cameron is insulated from ugliness and fear, with the biggest worries being what to wear to a specific event and keeping one's place in the clique. As the title of the book tells us, everything in the lives of the teenagers revolves around being popular. However, since they are the children and grandchildren of those who survived The Troubles, it is not surprising that they would choose as their queen someone with a cool head and a quick tongue, who demands absolute loyalty.
It would be a mistake to classify Popular as another piece of trite teen fiction or chick-lit; it is much more. Popular, although it is a novel, has much in common with a comedy of manners, a drama which satirizes the manners and affectations of a particular social class with the emphasis on comic and witty dialog. It follows in the tradition of Molière's Le Misanthrope, Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, Sheridan's School for Scandal and even the novels of Jane Austen. Most especially, Popular reminded me of such works of Oscar Wilde as The Importance of Being Earnest for its sheer entertainment quality and unapologetic aristocratic flair. Not surprisingly, Popular has already made the transition from book to stage play.
Since the setting is contemporary, the language of Popular is of the present; the protagonists speak pretty much the same way teenagers do everywhere, with swearing and vulgarity, while engaging in what we in America call underage drinking. Being that the characters are mostly Irish, the banter is especially brisk, sparkling and humorous. As we follow the friends from party to party, the interactions become thought-provoking as well. In seeing the foibles, vanities and deceptions of fifteen and sixteen year olds we are forced to acknowledge that perhaps we have behaved in similar duplicitous and self-indulgent ways, without having the excuse of youth and immaturity. Underneath the froth are heartbreaking truths which most of us try to ignore, as do Meredith and her cronies. In the meantime, the parents of Meredith and company hardly appear at all. Such is the skill of the author in bringing his characters to life that I had to keep reminding myself that they are fictional so I need not worry about them.
While on one level the teens are like teens everywhere, there are differences which make them unique to their own time and place. Although they are under the influence of Sex and the City, Mean Girls and Coppola's Marie-Antoinette they still seem to value purity, especially Meredith, who is a practicing Catholic. Meredith is one of the most interesting heroines I have ever encountered in fiction although I detested her at first. She has been compared to Scarlett O'Hara but I think she is a lot more intelligent and less given to histrionics; there are no Ashley obsessions. She is more like the virgin princess in Puccini's Turandot than anyone else: the icy, intransigent maiden. Meredith appears to have it all together; she has everything, absolutely everything, except a mother. The fact that her mother abandoned her might be the reason why Meredith is so controlling of everyone else, pulling strings behind the scenes, always scheming, while ruling her clique with an iron hand. She is especially against great displays of emotion; her enormous self-control makes her a born leader, which her wealth and sense of style allow her to carry off with aplomb. Meredith is also uncompromising when it comes to protecting her friends, although she bullies them a bit at times, for what she thinks is their own good. She holds them to the same high standards which she has for herself, and ultimately, I think she should become a nun; she would make a good Mother Superior. Only in Ireland would the scenarios of Popular exist with the same mix of hilarity and pathos, along with a small dose of innocence which the rest of the world has forgotten.
Popular is the first of a series; with such colorful personalities, it will be interesting to see where it all goes. I am already looking forward to the next installment.
(*NOTE: Popular was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.)