Sixteen Candles sounds like such a sweet title, it struck me as an odd choice for inclusion in a horror series. But it works.
I knew who the killer was, unfortunately, right from the beginning. But it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book.(And I’m going to be blunt about who the killer was, so SPOILERS BENEATH THE CUT).
What DID nearly spoil my enjoyment was the character’s weight-based self loathing. I mean, it came across differently than fat-bashing by other characters, to be sure, but since the main character undergoes a near-magical transformation into Thin-and-Pretty it left me a bit irritable. (Speaking of transformations, the French summary has her turning into “un ravissant papillon.” A ravishing butterfly? I know what they mean, but…what?)
The book opens with soon-to-be-sixteen-years-old Kelly Langdon sweating fatly in English class, and thinking about how her aunt probably won’t have the money to get her class ring, even though most of the other juniors already have theirs.
No class ring, Kelly thought.
Just another disappointment in a long line of disappointments that had followed the accidental deaths of her parents. (p. 3)
I laughed out loud at that. Get some perspective, Kelly. Not getting a ring you’ll never wear once you leave high school is minor stuff compared to being orphaned!
Kelly is overweight and poor, and I really felt badly for her:
Kelly began to fan herself with the notebook as moisture formed on her pallid skin. Even if she had not been twenty-five pounds overweight, the high-necked blouse and plaid wool would have been out of style and too warm for June. (p. 3)
Although come to think of it, twenty-five pounds overweight is not, relatively speaking, all that overweight. It makes the teasing she endures from people like Liza Brown seem a little ridiculous.
Kelly’s self-esteem is, clearly, low:
Kelly sat there, wishing she could die. She took the humiliation with a red face. There was no real way for her to fight back. Fat girls weren’t allowed to defend themselves.
Kelly has one good friend, Rachel Warren, and one creepy guy friend named Marshall Butler who like-likes her and will not accept that Kelly doesn’t like him back. For a while I was afraid that Kelly would “learn to love him” and end up with him, and I was hugely relieved that the book didn’t go there.
Rachel smiled at him. “Hi, Marshall.”
Marshall nodded, but he did not look at Rachel. “Hi, Kelly. Gee, you look really nice today.”
Yeah, Kelly thought, I don’t sweat much for a fat girl who still dresses in winter clothes. (p. 9)
Ouch. Also, I love how that short quote just sums up all of these characters’ issues so neatly.
Rachel scold Kelly for turning Marshall down too bluntly, and I do not approve.
Kelly grimaced and bit her lip. “I know. I feel bad about it. I mean, this banquet s such a big deal to him.”
“It’s a nerd banquet!” Rachel announced with sudden bitterness. “All the geeks who can’t get into any other club join the Computer Club. Just like us.” (p. 11)
Someone in a red Buick (with tinted windows) follows Kelly and Rachel for a little while on their way home.
It turns out to be (maybe? or maybe there’s a second red Buick) Jeremy Rice, a popular
jackass boy who’s dating Liza but now wants Kelly to join him at the mall for pizza. Don’t do it, Kelly; I sense a trap.
At the mall Jeremy is distracted, and Kelly thinks she sees Liza spying on them.
He gestured at the paper plate. “Eat up, Kelly. I thought a girl your size could pack away a dozen slices.” (p. 23)
She gets mad at him, is temporarily dissuaded when he says he invited her out to ask her to his pool party, but then the other shoe drops: he wants her to hack into the school computer and change his grades, because otherwise he’ll have to go to summer school.
I don’t usually approve of physical violence even in books, but this was all kinds of satisfying, I admit it:
Liza clutched the shoulder of her blouse. “I told him you wouldn’t do it, fat girl! I’m gonna make you pay for this. I—”
Kelly lost control. She lunged at Liza, pushing with all her strength. Liza tumbled backwards, falling over the tables and chairs. For a moment, Kelly thought she had hurt the insensitive girl, but Liza scrambled quickly to her feet. (p. 26)
I kind of hate the “fat girl loses weight and becomes beautiful” thing, but this book does a REALLY good job at setting it up so that you’ll vicariously cheer for the transformation.
Kelly has a nightmare in which a masked intruder says, “Sixteen candles. You’ll never see seventeen.”
When she wakes up we meet her Aunt Doris for the first time. Up until this point all we know is that she’s poor, and she raised Kelly.
“You shouldn’t walk around in the dark,” Aunt Doris said in a gravelly voice. “You’ll fall and break your neck as clumsy as you are.” (p. 33)
Aunt Doris has been out drinking at the bar, and now she’s home in her food-stained white hospital uniform, reeking of cigarette smoke and whiskey.
She orders pizza, and all of a sudden I was convinced she’s the killer. She can’t afford to pay sixty dollars for a class ring or buy summer clothes from the thrift shop by June, but she can stay out drinking and order take-out? She’s keeping Kelly fat and badly dressed on purpose. Kelly dreams about her “pretty mother” reassuring her and then her parents’ car going off a cliff, and bam, there we have it: motive. Doris is keeping Kelly ugly because she was jealous of her prettier sister.
Kelly has an appointment with Miss Monica, an actually useful guidance counselor who recommends Kelly for a summer job at the school, helping out with the community outreach program.
It will be Kelly’s first job, and right away she sees the possibilities. She can pay for her class ring, buy some clothes, start saving for college.
Her aunt throws her a birthday party (well…just Rachel and Marshall) and mutters that the cake is her gift to Kelly. Rachel gives her a silk scarf. Marshall gives her a way-too-expensive sports watch, but says he got it free with his computer, which I think is a gracious lie (and this is the only moment when I like Marshall). He also mentions the summer job, so Kelly has to tell Aunt Doris about it.
Aunt Doris grimaced and stared up at the ceiling. “Yeah? What’re they going to pay you?”
Kelly found that her mouth had gone dry. “Uh, minimum wage,” she lied, not wanting to show up her aunt.
Doris Hendricks sighed and nodded. “Same as me,” she said, relaxing. (p. 51)
Ugh. I have every sympathy for insecurities, but if you find yourself competing with a teenager you’ve raised, you’re turning into a monster. Seek therapy to re-humanize yourself, STAT.
The book skips ahead three months, and Kelly is transformed. I am equal parts enjoying this and annoyed by this.
“Have you started to enjoy exercising?” Coach Sikes asked.
Kelly nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Kelly, it’s like I don’t even know you any more. Who on earth enjoys exercising?
Kelly also reaches into the pocket of her “baggy shorts” to retrieve the keys to the van, which is the first hint of a REALLY annoying “I didn’t even notice!” thing.
Coach Sikes asks Kelly if she can spare a moment, because she has something she wants to show her. If I was writing this, this scene would have gone somewhere completely different….but no, they’re in the weight room.
“Are you taking those vitamins the school nurse gave you, Kelly?”
Kelly nodded. She had been cooking for herself at home, avoiding the fats and sugary foods that Aunt Doris brought home for dinner. The good diet of fish and vegetables had made her feel better, but she was still fat.
If only she wasn’t such a blimp! (p. 57)
I’m going to quote this extensively just because it’s so freaking annoying.
Coach Sikes stepped back. “There, you see. You have made progress. I could tell you had lost weight.”
Kelly pushed up her glasses, squinting at the indicator. “One-nineteen. That can’t be right.”
“The scale was checked yesterday by the team physician. It’s right on the money.”
Kelly frowned with disbelief. “Twenty-nine pounds. I’ve lost that much? I hope I’m not sick or something.” (p. 58)
JFC, Kelly, you’ve changed your eating habits completely, started exercising, and are working full time. Ten pounds a month is perfectly reasonable.
Kelly turned toward the mirror on the wall of the weight room. She looked at herself objectively. Had she really lost that much weight? Why hadn’t she noticed it along the way? The baggy shorts and loose shirt made her look bigger. (p. 58)
That noise you just heard was me screaming and throwing the book against the wall. CLOTHES DON’T WORK THAT WAY. They don’t really even hide your body from other people, but they REALLY don’t hide it from you, the person dressing it and showering and LIVING IN IT.
But I shall grit my teeth and keep going, because the pleasure of “I’ll show them by turning up beautiful!” mostly outweighs the idiocy of this.
For instance, she runs into Jeremy, who thinks she’s a transfer student. She tells him to get lost.
Then she buys clothes and soft contacts and, okay, has a few bitchy moments where she forgets where she came from.
In the hustle and bustle of Kelly’s newfound popularity, Rachel was abruptly pushed to the edge of the crowd, shunted aside by the sudden interest in her best friend. (p. 79)
Also, Aunt Doris keeps chiding her for skipping take-out meals and leaving donuts uneaten in the fridge.
Someone leaves her a message (in her chemistry book, but she doesn’t find it until she’s at home) that says “Fool!” and Kelly is a little bit loathsome in response:
The bloody note was obviously some kind of prank played by Liza Brown or some other envious jerk. She wasn’t going to let them spoil her fun. After all, popular kids often had to endure the slings and arrows of the less fortunate, those jealous people who didn’t want anyone to have a good time. (p. 86)
Are you kidding me, Kelly? The “less fortunate”? That was you until a few months ago, you jerk.
Anyway. The note marks the point when FINALLY SOME HORROR appears in the plot.
Kelly’s dating someone named Brad, and Marshall doesn’t like it.
“I don’t like him,” Marshall muttered.
He would never have a chance with Kelly now. He had been looking forward to their senior year, sure that their love would blossom. Kelly had really let him down. He wasn’t even sure he could be friends with her now. (pp. 87-88)
UGH. First of all she’s not “letting him down;” she never liked him! Ever! She was perfectly clear on that point. And secondly, if you can’t be friends with her because she’s not romantically interested in you, you were never friends.
Kelly fights with him about this, and then gets mad at Rachel for no good reason. I was really disappointed in her but she apologizes later and, well, I guess I can buy that someone with really low self-esteem might have initial problems adjusting to a sudden increase in superficial popularity.
She and Brad go out to the lighthouse, and someone slashes his tires while they’re away from the car. She thinks it’s Jeremy.
Aunt Doris isn’t there when she gets home, and someone calls and calls Kelly “You little fool.” Even more tellingly, they repeat the bit about “sweet sixteen, you’ll never see seventeen” from Kelly’s dream. SEE, SEE? It has to be Aunt Doris, and Kelly dreamed that because her aunt was standing over her muttering it while she slept or something.
Brad and Jeremy fight at school, and Brad breaks a couple of his ribs.
This paragraph makes me wonder if KELLY was the one failing English, not Jeremy:
Their lips met in an innocent kiss that made Kelly feel better. After all, young lovers often had obstacles to overcome. They were like Romeo and Juliet—nothing could stand in their way. (p. 110)
Kelly thinks Brad is going to offer her his class ring, and I momentarily got confused and wondered if this was set in the fifties. But no, I think it’s set in the early nineties when it was written; the author just has odd ideas about teenagers in the 90s.
Hundreds of stockinged feet shuffled on the wooden floor of the Central Academy gymnasium, bodies writhing in time to the thump of an electric bass guitar. The Back-to-School dance was a wild sock hop…(p. 113)
Sock hop? Really? I know what a sock hop is only because my mother told me about them, and she was actually too young to have experienced the “sock hop” thing personally. Unless these had a revival in the 90s that I don’t know about, that is a seriously strange detail.
I continue to hate Marshall:
Marshall wheeled to gaze wild-eyed at Rachel. “Don’t tell me you’re on her side. Traitor!”
Rachel pushed him toward the other end of the table. “We’re out of cookies. Get some more.”
Marshall hesitated, his angry eyes flashing at Kelly. He had loved her so much for so long. He had loved her when she was still a fat nerd. Why couldn’t she be his girl? Clenching his fists in the air, he turned away from them, muttering to himself. (p. 115)
Marshall is a perfectly-written example of a certain kind of unhealthy entitlement. I’m torn between loathing for him and admiration for the author at capturing it so perfectly.
Jeremy hits on Kelly, who lures him to the pool building and then pushes him into the water. He only wants her MORE after that, because he’s an idiot. Kelly leaves, and then an unknown assailant hits him over the head and kills him.
Kelly and Brad both end up being taken for questioning, and then have a stupid fight at the police station. Not good, because someone cuts the brake line on Brad’s car, and he ends up in a coma. Everyone at school now thinks Kelly is a killer.
Rachel shivered through her entire body. “Déjà vu.”
“Your parents, Kelly. Isn’t that how they died? Their brakes failed and they went off the mountain.” (p. 141)
How did Kelly not think of that right away? I swear she gets stupider over the course of this novel.
She is smart enough to come up with a plan, though: she gets Rachel to dress up as a guy and they go parking at various sites around town, hoping to draw out the killer. I’m having a hard time resisting the urge to write fanfic about this.
Anyway. It works: when they park at the lighthouse the killer shows up and corners them:
The lighthouse beam revealed the anguished expression on her aunt’s face. “Your mother! She was my sister, but she was a tramp, just like you. But my mother thought she was the good one, the pretty one. And I was the nothing, the ugly duckling. She was horrible to me!”
“No, that’s not true. Mom was a good person. You’re the—”
“She stole my boyfriends! She stole your father from me. He was mine before she came along. He was my boyfriend first!”
“That’s impossible!” Kelly cried. “Mom met Dad in New York, while she was on vacation. She talked him into moving to Port City. He never even knew you back then.” (p. 161)
Anyway, that goes on for a while, and Aunt Doris tries to stab them or drive them over the rail, but after injuring Kelly and Rachel she falls down the stairs.
Kelly and Rachel are rescued, and then it turns out Kelly’s parents left huge insurance policies that her aunt couldn’t touch but kept hidden from her anyway, and now Kelly is rich. Miss Monica is going to be her temporary guardian. Also, Brad is okay.
Then in an unexpected final scene, she basically proposes to him:
A stunned, glassy looked [sic] appeared in his eyes. It was quickly replaced by a devilish grin. “Kelly, are you asking me to…”
“I guess I am, Brad,” she said.
Brad was speechless.
So Kelly answered for him. With a kiss. (p. 174)
That’s how the book ends. She has a year left of high school, but she’s basically engaged to get married after college, which by the way she’s paying for her fiance to attend. This is either meant to be a happy ending or the scariest scene in the book.