Monday, April 27, 2009

Turn, Turn, Turn: Spinning the Bottle by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel

I walked to the center of the stage and raised the paper. The silence in the auditorium was deafening. My hands were shaking. My feet were sweating.

"Nathan, where ya been?" I began. Squeaky! Too squeaky!

. . .I felt the world began to tilt under my feet, and I turned and ran offstage, dropping the handout pages on the way. By some miracle there was a large garbage can just behind one of the flats. I sprinted to it and grabbed hold with both hands.

Then I threw up, loudly and burpingly, for all the Drama Club to hear.

It was to be the moment she had hoped for through years of playing singing vegetables and dancing days of the week in elementary school plays, attending every middle school performance religiously, and worshipping the actresses who starred on that stage from afar. Now Phoebe Hart, seventh grader, is an actual member of the Drama Club and is auditioning, alongside her idols, for the part of Adelaide in the fall production of Guys and Dolls. Her best friend and soulmate, Harper, has agreed to work backstage just to keep her company, and Tucker Wells, the OOMA (Object of My Affections), with whom she has just been smitten, has turned out to be an eighth grade member of the club as well. Phoebe knows she has real talent and that acting is her passion. Now it is her big moment.

And then, as the pragmatic Harper puts it, an unfortunate "digestive malfunction" occurs in front of the whole group and brings her first audition to an excruciatingly embarrassing, er, outcome.

Phoebe is sure her life is ruined, but with Harper's "no drama" good sense, she manages to make it through the next day of school. Disappointed, but glad to have been given any part at all, she makes up her mind to give her total attention to her role as member of the Mission Choir, backing up the striking Mia Kezdekian starring as the Salvation Army's Sergeant Sarah.

But navigating the shoals of middle school social strata turns out to be treacherous. The older girls seem so gorgeous and sure of themselves, and the boys--well, they are just weird. Every look, comment, and smile has to be weighed. Should she be friendly to seventh-grader Savannah, whom she nicknames the Blond Cherubic Newbie, and risk being grouped with the younger students in the minds of the ruling divas, Mia and Delilah? And what's going on with those two, both of whom seem to be taking an unexpected interest in her? Delilah visits her at home after her awful audition to encourage her to continue, and Mia secretly advises Phoebe that she should learn the Mission Choir leader's lines and blocking in case Phoebe gets a chance to take over the part from the glam Mia. Tucker turns out to be a disorganized but genuinely nice guy who seems to be paying special attention to her, and Phoebe is stricken nearly mute every time he tries to talk with her. And then there's the scary but intriguing Drama Club opening night ritual--an all-cast game of Spin the Bottle required even of newbies. Phoebe is horrified at the thoughts of kissing the guys in the cast--except, of course, Tucker, the OOMA!

The pressure seems to be too much for Phoebe. Harper, her steadfast safety valve, seems curiously uninterested in Phoebe's anxiety over cast politics and the trauma of kissing games, patronizingly calling them the concerns of "Tiny Minds," and Phoebe surprises even herself by angrily breaking off her friendship with Harper. And to make things even worse, Phoebe's psychologist mom hears rumors of the Spin the Bottle tradition and, sure that it's the source of what she diagnoses as her naive little girl's anxieties, threatens to intervene embarrassingly with the Drama Club's aristocratic director, Mr. Romeo.

When the actress playing the Mission Choir's leader actually develops serious vocal problems in the last days of rehearsal, Phoebe realizes that she is indeed in a position to take over the substantial part. But she also sees that if she does, she will become a pawn in the power struggle between Mia and Delilah, a rivalry between the two divas which may indeed sink the whole cast's performance. It's a decision which Phoebe has to make in an instant, but one she suddenly realizes that she is ready to make.

Spin The Bottle is a very funny but equally intelligent new novel by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, who in her earlier novels, Lily B. on the Brink of Cool (Lily B.) and Lily B. on the Brink of Love (Lily B.) has shown herself able to walk the walk and talk the talk of the middle school experience. Here Kimmel has crafted a humorous but honest look at a girl who finds her own way to make it in middle school while remaining remarkably true to what Phoebe calls "her inner self."

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