Amanda Sellet’s debut By the Book: A Novel of Prose and Cons is the very definition of cute, guaranteed to make you feel all the warm fuzzies. Now, I love to read as much as the next bookworm (probably even more), but I found myself making even more time for reading because all I wanted to do was spend time inside this book.
We open on our main character, Mary Porter-Malcolm, the daughter of two college professors, who has spent her entire life attending a small private school of professor’s kids, a.k.a. fellow nerds. However, the time has now come for Mary to leave the nest. She finds out on the first pages of this book that her school has been closed, and in the fall, she will be attending Millville High School, her first step into a world she’s only read about in books. Although this scares her, she also feels the glimmers the possibility—perhaps the time has finally come where interesting things, like the kind that happen in books, will start to happen to her too. She says, “my real life has always been light on plot development,” and that was the moment that I knew I was ready to follow her anywhere.
Mary enters high school bravely, armed with the knowledge that she has at least a few friends from her old school behind her. Her hopes are shattered instantly, however, when these friends decide to leave her behind in order to get ahead. She needs new friends, but doesn’t know how to get them. She’s read every classic in existence, but books can’t help you make friends.
…or can they? Not long after this disaster, while sitting in a bookstore, Mary overhears three of her classmates discussing boy problems, and she jumps in with what she knows best: boy advice straight out of classic literature. She compares the boy they’re talking about to Vronsky in Anna Karenina, which they find fascinating. Inspired by her newfound friendship, Mary creates the Scoundrel Survival Guide, which warns girls about what types of guys to avoid, inspired by all the scoundrels in classic lit. Everything seems to be working like a dream… until she starts to fall for one of those scoundrels herself, threatening both her ideals and her relationship with her first real friends.
There is such an abundance of things to love about this book, it’s hard to choose just a few. The first thing that strikes me is the big family dynamic. So many YA characters are only children or have families who don’t play a big role on the page (if they do, it’s negative), so it’s lovely to feel enveloped in a big family. Each member is so distinct and fun, and the family as a whole has their own quirks and traditions that make the family seem so authentic and real.
While it feels like a rom-com, and there is a cute little romance, it is the friendship between Mary and her three new friends that takes center stage in this novel. This friendship is even more important to Mary than a romantic relationship, and it’s so beautiful to watch it grow. In a time where it’s so common to see friendship as a side plot and romance as the focus, it’s wonderful to see the roles reversed.
Yes, as several reviewers have pointed out, the main character is sweet and sheltered, and she’s only 15, so she is naive at times, but that was another thing that I actually liked about it. YA these days often gears towards older readers, and while I am 20 myself, it’s refreshing to see a change and a novel that young readers can enjoy. Despite being on the young side, I still felt like as a book nerd, Mary carries enough maturity that older readers will happily enjoy her as a main character.
Friendship, family, and throw in a copious amount of literary references, and you have one happy reader. I encourage everyone, even non-classics lovers, to pick up this book for the warm, happy, wholesome vibes (which we all desperately need right now), and if you love a good Jane Austen novel, as I do, that is just guaranteed to make you love it even more!