A pretty good Meg Cabot book is a deep and uncomplicated pleasure. Best known as the author of the Princess Diaries books, Cabot is capable of writing books that are the literary equivalent of a bubble bath: frothy, frivolous, and undemanding.
Generally, they concern an earnest and mildly neurotic young woman and a sarcastic but charming young man who, after exchanging pop-culture-laced banter, fall in love, face mild complications, and then resolve them. The formula is soothing, the banter is charming, and the whole thing is very likable.
A really great Meg Cabot book is moving and quirky as it is likable. When Cabot’s at her best, she goes digging into her characters’ psychologies and explores their neuroses, and the results can be really compelling. In the case of the latter-day Princess Diaries books, this can be seen in the thoughtful, funny, and occasionally sad evolution of how and why Princess Mia plans to lose her virginity.
However, Cabot’s latest book, The Boy Is Back, is not Cabot at her best. It’s not even Cabot at her pretty good. It’s Cabot at her "this is fine, I guess."
The earnest and mildly neurotic young woman here is Becky Flowers, who lives in a small town in Indiana with her family and is dating a wine and cheese salesman everyone insists on referring to as "the lumbersexual." Becky is still hung up on her high school boyfriend, Reed, but Reed’s now a famous professional golfer, so she’s sure he’s not hung up on her.
But then Reed comes back to town to care for his aging parents and drop some significant Persuasion quotes on Becky. (That’s the one where the two lovers reunite after nine years of separation.) Predictably, Becky starts to develop some doubts about her lumbersexual.
Like all of the books in the loosely connected Boy series, The Boy Is Back is epistolatory, told through chat logs, emails, and diary entries. The book has to stretch hard to fit its format, though, leading to more than one scene where people who are standing next to each other in the same room converse via text so that we can see their conversations written down. It’s a clumsy choice that doesn’t really pay off.
The format also has the effect of flattening the characters. Cabot traditionally gets a lot of comedic mileage out of her quirky supporting casts, but when their presence is confined to exposition-laden emails, it’s hard to get enough sense of their personalities to care about their jokes.
It also deadens her voice. Cabot’s secret weapon is her flexible, deadpan comedic prose, which gives her banter zing and her interior monologues charm; it makes Mia’s ambling, breathless recaps of her favorite Lifetime Original Movies one of the most entertaining parts of the Princess Diaries series. But in The Boy Is Back, her voice has gone bland and generic with the effort of forcing itself into the epistolatory format.
Cabot’s standard formula is as soothing as ever, but with her voice’s personality and charm blunted and her characters flattened, it’s hard to see just what the point of this book is. It’s fine. It’s functional. It’s a nice palate-cleanser between other, more complicated books. But there are a whole lot of other Meg Cabot books out there that will do the same work, and do it better.