This novel sort of fluctuates between several major feelings. On the one hand, Jake and Dani are pretty passionate about each and clearly falling in love. When they see each other, the stars align, butterflies flutter, and the score from Titanic swells in the background:
I nodded. It didn't matter where I sat. I couldn't hear anything Ms. Miller was saying over the pounding in my chest. And I couldn't see anything past the doll-like profile of the new girl. Amy's cousin. She looked absurdly girlish beneath the harsh layers of make-up, denim and leather. Aside from a tiny scar on her upper lip and a short jagged scar on her chin, she was flawless. And deep down, I hoped that she didn't know anything about Jake West. (7.17)
Yup, that's pretty darn romantic right there.
But because Amy's death sort of hovers over everything that happens in the story, there are also a whole lot of solemn, thoughtful, and sober moments where Jake and Dani are forced to reflect on the loss they've experienced and what roles they might have played in Amy's death. Not exactly cheery stuff, is it?
In the end, though, we are left with a sense of hope that Jake and Dani can move forward together. Now that they know the truth about how Amy died, they can start putting some of the pieces of their lives back together. And they can do it hand-in-hand. Aw.
Since A Little Less Girl features teenage characters and specifically tackles a whole bunch of issues that young folks might relate to, it's generally classified as young adult literature. That doesn't mean that old adults can't enjoy it, though, so read away, thirty-somethings. No judgment here.
But this book isn't just hanging out on YA shelves. This tale also contains elements of mystery. See, everyone in town thinks Amy committed suicide, but Dani just doesn't buy it. She turns into a bit of a detective as she pours over Amy's writing and artwork to find clues that will tell her how and why Amy actually died. And even though Dani comes very close to accepting that she'll never crack the case, in the end she finds the culprit and Jake is sufficiently awed by her investigative powers.
Our title comes directly from the story itself. Though this passage doesn't appear until almost halfway through the novel, eventually we find out that this—"a little less girl"—is the super mean thing Jake said about Amy. These are the words that everyone in town believes drove her to start crash-dieting and then commit suicide. Amy relays the story in her diary here:
Jane Austen must have died of a broken heart when she realized romantic heroes like those in her stories do not exist in real life. And now, I know that too. You open up their shiny, beautiful packaging and all you find is a black heart. He "prefers a little less girl." Well, I've got news for you, Jake West. I prefer a lot more man. (18.11)
Snap, girlfriend. We think you're too good for him, too.
Basically, this little quote is kind of the catalyst for everything in the story. Because Jake made this comment about Amy, her romantic balloon got majorly popped, and when she died the whole town easily cast Jake as the bad guy in her tragic life story. Jake thinks about this moment a lot once Amy is gone. While he doesn't totally blame himself for her death, he also understands there was something pretty cruel about what he said.
Luckily for Amy, she just shook it off. And in this way, calling the book A Little Less Girl does something clever—in showing Amy's ability to rise above Jake's stupid comment, we realize just how much girl she really was.
After a whole lot of will they/won't they romantic tension and a bunch of last-minute reveals about the real story behind Amy's "suicide," our tale ends with a sweet moment between Jake and Dani:
"You knew all along that Amy hadn't killed herself."
I stared out at the empty pastures a moment thinking about the bond I'd had with Amy. Even the distance between us had not broken it. I looked back at Jake. "Amy was the other half of my soul."
He stepped forward and took hold of my hand. "Does that mean you're in the market for a new soul mate?"
"Could be," I said. "But I have a few prerequisites."
His heart stopping smile appeared. "Oh?"
I lifted his hand to my mouth and kissed it. "You must make me laugh at least three times a day, you can never take life too seriously, and you have to like lime Jell-O."
He leaned closer, and I couldn't pull my gaze from his mouth.
"We've got a problem then." His face lowered and he kissed my nose. "I prefer strawberry."
"Well, I guess I can make that one exception."
His mouth covered mine, and I thought Miss Austen could have her Darcy, and Miss Brontë could have her Heathcliff. I had my Jake. (36.11-19)
This is pretty much the perfect wrap-up for everything that's come before it. Dani can finally move on with her life now that she has proven to everyone that Amy didn't commit suicide. But there's also a bittersweet note there—Amy's still gone and Dani's really going to miss her. Bummer.
The good news is Dani also happens to have a super sweet and super cute boy to dry her tears. Jake is going to be there for her and be a friend to Dani just like Amy was. Well, not in the same exact way, but you get the point. The last line of the story reaffirms that Amy was right all along about real-life love stories: Romantic heroes do exist. Yay.
Even though Raynesville is in modern America, we're never told exactly what state. Dani just says that it's "hundreds of miles away" (4.10) from California. And while is a fictional place, Tess Oliver said said that when she was writing about it, she imagined the landscape of Colorado. Colorado it is, then.
Raynesville is a pretty typical small town with some amazing scenery. Jake gives us our first taste of the place:
Parking spots and businesses along Main Street stood empty as Sunday evening slid into Raynesville. The theater's orange façade looked harsher in the late day sun. The monotony of the place could choke you like one of those stupid ties you have to wear to a wedding or funeral. But no matter how hard you dragged at your collar, the place sucked the breath out of you. Around the corner, the tall, white water tower threw a shadow across the road. This morning the words save me a place in hell had been scrawled in black paint along the water tank's perimeter. The sight of it had made my morning, but the graffiti had already been covered up. Stuff like that wasn't tolerated in Raynesville. (1.5)
That sounds pretty darn suffocating. Jake might have been the King of Raynesville, but since being blamed for Amy's death, he can't wait to get out of this place. In this way, the small-town setting matters—there's no anonymity for Jake around these parts. He becomes jaded about the town and its "traditions," stuff like swimming, hanging out at the Bus, jumping off the Ledge, and playing the Game. After Amy's gone, it all seems kind of meaningless to him even though it has a really big hold on the other folks who live in town. Jake is very much over it, and this makes him the odd man out.
Dani, on the other hand, is new to town so she sees Raynesville really differently. At Grammie's old house, Dani has finally found a home. She's used to moving from place to place (and even in and out of foster homes) because of her mom's drug problems. Now that she's in Raynesville, though, she can finally settle down.
"It's kind of hard to train for the Olympics when you're moving from town to town every few months."
"You're staying here though, right?" Blister asked abruptly.
I nodded. "I think so. I hope so." An uncomfortable silence fell over the group, and I wished I hadn't said anything. These people had probably always had a home right here in Raynesville. They'd all had the life I'd always dreamed about, stable and predictable. (26.51-53)
For Dani, Raynesville represents normalcy, something she's always missed in her life. It also connects her to the people she's lost—Amy and Grammie. Living in Raynesville, even with its weird traditions and hangouts and super freaky ledges and games, is a-okay her.
By the end of the story, both Jake and Dani find out a whole lot more about the place they call home. Jake mends fences with his hometown and decides that life in Raynesville isn't quite as intolerable as he thought. Dani also starts to see the dark side of a place that seemed wholesome and sweet to her. After all, if Mr. Dermott can prey on a student while no one notices, this place can't be quite as perfect as it first seems.
Since this story takes place in a contemporary town in the good ol' U.S. of A, most young readers will have no trouble getting into the language and the characters. Our tale does deal with some tough subjects—suicide, drug addiction, inappropriate teacher-student relationships—and takes some mysterious twists and turns along the way, but so long as you stay alert, you'll have no trouble keeping up as we hunt for the truth about Amy's untimely demise.
There's not much in A Little Less Girl to trip you up in terms of flowery or poetic passages. Sure, there's a whole lot of romance and mystery, but all this is relayed in a pretty straightforward way that should be fairly accessible for readers of any age. Take this passage:
"It seems you were right all along about your cousin," he said. "It was a terrible tragedy, and Dermott left the accident without notifying anyone. He's taught his last class in this town. I don't think anyone will be bothering you anymore. And let's hope Jake's hand can finally heal properly." He shook his head. "Never in a million years would I have expected Dermott to be behind all this." (36.5)
That's a quick-and-dirty wrap-up of the entire novel, but it also clearly tells you what happened to Amy and why Mr. Dermott is going to be in major trouble. Eh, that guy was no good anyway.
George Carlin famously said that swimming is not a sport because it's really just "a way to keep from drowning." And he's actually sort of right—which is why it's pretty symbolic that Dani and Jake are so darned good at swimming.
Dani's not only an amazing swimmer, she also has a mermaid tattoo and a cool nickname to go along with it. But Dani's also sort of caught between two worlds, just like a mermaid (who's both fish and human). She has a sordid past in California but is anxious to make a fresh start in Raynesville. She's also been kind of weighed down by her mom's drug problems in the past, but has managed to pull great grades in school and generally excel. You might say Dani's very adept at staying above water. That's why it's so fitting that the girl is such an awesome swimmer—she's really good at keeping herself from drowning.
Jake is no different. Before Amy died, he was the best swimmer on Raynesville's team. He was the lord of the swim lanes and kind of floated above everyone else. It isn't until Amy dies and he gets blamed for it that Jake begins to feel like he's sinking a bit. This is also around the time he quits the swim team. Maybe he just didn't feel like he could keep afloat anymore?
Swimming is also a big focus for the entire town:
Raynesville was a swimming town. There was a football team and a baseball team, but the swim team was the school's claim to fame. Raynesville infants were dropped into one of the public swimming pools before they could crawl. (9.1)
Everyone in Raynesville likes a winner. The only thing Coach Higgins can see is championship gold, and Jake's dad just wants his son to get in the pool and start swimming again. These guys don't seem to care much about Jake and Dani as people; they just want fast young bodies in the water. It's an interesting twist on the symbol of swimming: On one hand, it's connected to Dani and Jake excelling—but on the other, at least when it comes to the literal pool (instead of, say, the pool of life), swimming is a way in which Jake and Dani aren't fully appreciated for who they are as people and instead only valued for their talent.
There are certain places in every town that become legendary, and Lucifer's Ledge—a.k.a. the Ledge—is that place in Raynesville. For starters, it's named for Lucifer, which is basically never a good sign. When Jake gives us a quick view of the place, it doesn't seem any less ominous:
The moss covered trees and vines quickly evolved into speckled slabs of granite. The air was much thinner and colder on the way to the crest where Lucifer's Ledge stuck out like a gargoyle standing guard over a building. I could hear and smell the waterfall before I saw it. I edged my way to the top, stepping over trickles of clear water running through deep crevices in the rock. It wasn't long before the violent surge of the waterfall muted the hum of the voices down below.
I was breathing hard by the time I'd reached the Ledge. It looked out over a small, deep lake called Danver's Lagoon. The water in the lake eventually branched out into a myriad of small
streams. There was a small niche in the Ledge where you could sit and safely see the frothy white bubbles where the waterfall abruptly ended its journey into the lake below. (19.9-10)
So the Ledge is beautiful but also pretty dangerous. And there are rumors that anyone who's ever jumped from it has been horribly hurt and mangled by the rocks at the bottom of the lagoon. Blister has always wanted Jake to jump, but he's never been stupid enough to do it. Hey, when you're the big man on campus, you don't have to listen to anyone.
Now that's Amy's dead, though, Jake goes up to the Ledge to flirt with danger a bit. Unaware of how perilous this place is, Dani just goes ahead and jumps.
What's interesting here is that in their relationship to the Ledge, we can glimpse Dani's and Jake's respective relationships to Raynesville. Jake has lived here his whole life and been burned by the place, so he's not risking his neck to impress his Raynesville cohorts any time soon. But Dani's new in town and starts stirring up trouble without really knowing what she's getting into—just like she leaps from the Ledge without knowing how dangerous it could be.
Importantly, in the end everything works out okay for Dani. She doesn't get paralyzed or drown after jumping off the Ledge, just like she ultimately comes out on top at the end of the book.
Art reflects life and Amy's paintings and writings are certainly no different. Amy was a talented artist and she painted and drew to reveal her inner state:
The sides of the tunnel were painted with a collage of pictures. They were from Amy's brush. I would have recognized her art anywhere. Now Jake released my hand, and I moved closer to the pictures. Familiar faces stared back at me including Grammie, Amy's mom, and Amy herself. There was a picture of two little girls feeding ducks. That was us. We used to walk down to the city park with old bread to feed the birds. In the center was a picture of Jake on his horse. (20.14)
Amy paints the people she loves (like Dani, Grammie, and Jake) and even herself, drawing pictures of herself overweight and thin to express her transformation. She doodles in her diary, too, enhancing the entries. This is Dani's first clue that Amy wasn't sad or depressed or struggling—she painted to express what she felt, and she only painted light and happy moments.
Because of this, the one painting Amy creates of something really upsetting gives Dani her biggest clue:
We both stared at the revealed picture. The rest of the pictures were brightly colored images of people, animals, and flowers. This picture was painted in black, white, and red. It was a mouth taking a bite from the palm of a hand. Blood sprayed from the hand. (27.57)
When Dani sees Amy's gruesome painting, she knows something pretty horrible must have gone down. Amy hid this painting, too, burying it deep in her secret art hideaway. Maybe she didn't want anyone to know what happened to her? Or maybe she only wanted the right people to find the picture and know exactly what she had been through? Who knows? Amy's dead, so we'll never find out.
No matter what, though, Amy definitely used her paintbrush to let the world in. And in this way, she reveals so much about her life after her death.
You ready for this? In A Little Less Girl, we get not one, but two first-person narrators. Lucky us, right? Jake and Dani tell their own stories in their own words in alternating chapters, giving us two intimate points of view on our story.
While this two-narrator approach helps us get a clearer picture of the setting, it also lets us see the romantic drama between Jake and Dani play out inside their heads. Both are clearly falling in love, but both are also convinced they should just ignore these blossoming feelings. Since we hop back and forth between their brains, though, we're rooting for their romance for much of the book.
Everyone in Raynesville blames Jake for the fact that Amy drove her car off a cliff. But Amy's cousin Dani, who's just moved to town, doesn't really believe Amy decided to end it all over some boy. Even if that boy is super dreamy. And with that, Dani's exploration of Amy's death begins.
Dani decides to dig a little deeper and find out exactly what happened to Amy by reading her diary, talking to her friends, and finding out a whole lot more about this Jake character. But the more Dani learns about Jake, the less she believes that he's responsible for Amy's death. She also might be slowly falling in love with him, so there's that little development. Swoon.
Dani finally decides that Jake isn't such a bad guy and Amy didn't kill herself at all. Of course she can't prove it, but still. When Jake steps in to defend Dani after she's attacked by a nutty ex-boyfriend, she knows he's definitely a good guy—no question about it—and with that, Jake is finally redeemed after being tormented by people's suspicions of him.
Dani finally comes to terms with Amy's death—she doesn't blame Jake and she's ready to move on. They kiss and Jake saves her (yeah, again) when someone who very badly wants to get his hands on Amy's diary breaks into her house.
Turns out that Mr. Dermott—everyone's favorite teacher—is the culprit behind Amy's untimely demise. Say what? In the final pages, Mr. Dermott confesses to having an affair with Amy and being there when she accidentally drove her car off that cliff. With that, Dani knows she's been right all along. Phew. With the truth out, Jake and Dani are free to kiss (some more) and live happily ever after. Yay.