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Not Just for Kids: 'Here Lies Bridget' by Paige Harbison

The author's debut novel delves into the mind of a high school mean girl.

January 23, 2011|Susan Carpenter | Los Angeles Times

Here Lies Bridget

A Novel

Paige Harbison

Harlequin Teen: 219 pp., $9.99 paper

Young adult fiction has long been populated with mean girls — vicious, boyfriend-stealing tarts who underdress, over-apply makeup and, generally, terrorize those whose daddies didn't buy them BMWs for their 16th birthdays. Predominantly blond and sneering, these girls tend to play minor but memorable roles, acting as foils to less-endowed protagonists who ultimately prevail against them.

Not in "Here Lies Bridget," the debut young adult novel from Paige Harbison. In this breezy tale of a debauched high school hierarchy, the penultimate mean girl Bridget is the central character, and lies are her primary means of control. She has no qualms about cheating and pinning the blame on another student. No second thoughts about berating her best friend.

Compellingly written from Bridget's point of view, "Here Lies Bridget" is an ideal read for victims of this abysmal behavior, offering keen and witty insight into the emotional motivations of privileged narcissists.

The book gets into gear quickly with a fast-paced prologue that has Bridget behind the wheel of her car, having ditched Winchester Prep for the afternoon. Angrily pushing pedal to the metal, she ruminates about the supposed misdeeds of her friends and family members, all the while careening toward a tree.

Just as quickly, readers are yanked back to what drove her there. A father who's never home. A mother who died in a car accident. A stepmother she dislikes. There's a teacher who, fed up with her flagrant tardiness and disrespect, threatens expulsion. And an ex-boyfriend who dumped her for being insincere.

From the outside, Bridget seems to have it all, so it's unclear why she is such a shrew. Her dad is a famous sportscaster whose reputation, coupled, of course, with his cash, have gotten her into the most prestigious private school in the area. But Bridget doesn't view that as a gift — just as a tool for manipulation and destruction. She belittles students who don't wear the right clothes, flirts with boys she has no intention of dating and flat-out lies to the school headmaster, obliterating the self-esteem and livelihoods of anyone who crosses her. It's a classic case of reducing others to rubble to lift oneself up.

What's so engaging about "Here Lies Bridget" is its honest insight into Bridget's self-perception. She knows exactly what she is doing, and she doesn't think it's wrong. Whether it's hinting to her beautiful best friend that the friend is fat, or insulting someone for not bringing enough beer to an underage party, everything Bridget does is a means to an end. She'll stop at nothing to maintain her popularity. In Bridget's twisted mind, mistreating others ensures they will never mistreat her.

Harbison does a wonderful job of dropping little hints as to why Bridget behaves as she does, casually working in her dad's disapproval of her tight Von Dutch jeans, or Bridget's desire, in elementary school, for another girl's name.

To fully explain, however, Harbison relies on a Dickensian technique, snatching Bridget from her reality and placing her in a car-crash-induced netherworld where she is forced to turn back the hands of time and relive her misdeeds by literally stepping into the shoes of those she's wronged. As with "A Christmas Carol," it's only through forced empathy that she truly sees the effects of her actions.

Though the closing chapter introduces a confusing concept — a character that was portrayed as real for the first half of the book is, without warning, a figment of Bridget's imagination at its end — "Here Lies Bridget" is an otherwise solid and intriguing read.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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