|Jenny Colgan gives Brit Chick Lit a touch of fantasy with The Boy I Loved Before. The plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen Peggy Sue Gets Married or Freaky Friday, but the heartfelt portrayal of adolescence the second time around elevates the story above its mundane roots.
As Flora Scurrison prepares to serve as maid of honor to her best friend Tashy (who is listed as “Sashy” on the book’s back cover and reading group guide – hello, copy editors, anyone home?), she admits that she has allowed herself to get into a rut. A boring job as an accountant, nice but dull boyfriend Olly – what happened to her teenaged dreams of living a free-spirited, uncompromising life? She watches Tashy pretend she is overjoyed to be marrying a man whose toast to his new bride compares her to his computer. She has to deal with her mother, who has been little more than a sad-eyed shadow since her marriage to Flora’s dad fell victim to his infidelity. She is further reminded of her adolescence at the wedding reception when she runs into John Clelland, her first true love, and discovers that he has lost none of his attractiveness. It’s all too much to accept. When did everything go so wrong? When Tashy and her new husband cut the wedding cake, Flora closes her eyes and wishes with all of her heart that she was 16 again.
The next thing she knows, Flora wakes up in her childhood home. The body and face she sees are those of a 16 year old girl, but she’s still very much her own 32 year old self inside. Strangely enough, Flora soon learns that although her body has gone back in time, the rest of the world has not. It’s still 2004, and although her parents are also younger versions of themselves, Tashy, Olly and, surprisingly, John Clelland remain the same age and are the only three people who recognize the teenaged Flora as her old self. Flora realizes she has no choice but to play out this macabre alternate life, but she wonders if this time she can change her future for the better. She is still an unpopular nerd whose 16th birthday party was a total disaster, but now she has the wisdom to know that in a few years the travails of high school won’t be as important. She can change her classes so she is taking a more interesting career path. And maybe this time around she can save her parents’ marriage if she tries hard enough to make them see what they are throwing away.
But deep inside Flora is ready to panic. Tashy is still getting married in this world in two weeks, and Flora assumes that if she re-lives the cake-cutting ceremony where she made her ill-advised wish, she will change back to her old self, but what if that’s not the case? If she succeeds in saving her parents’ marriage is it right to erase that by putting everything back the way it was? What is the strange relationship she is developing the second time around with John Clelland and with his younger brother Justin, who is now Flora’s classmate? And even though she knows she can survive high school’s social hell, why does it still bother her so much when the popular mean girls make fun of her?
With humor and compassion, Colgan captures those wonderful but horrifying adolescent years, when you’re full of both tremendous insecurity and burgeoning possibility. A 32 year old woman trapped in a 16 year old body, Flora looks at her pre-wrinkled self and wonders why she ever complained about being fat and ugly. She finally has empathy for her hard-working and poorly-compensated teachers, but still rankles from the restrictions they impose. Colgan does such a good job of balancing the joys and heartaches of youth that you’re not completely sure which choice Flora will make: go back to her former life or let this one develop. The decision is especially difficult as she comes to understand that the repercussions of her decision will also have a major impact on the people she loves the most. The only misstep Colgan makes is an awkward attempt to put a romantic happy ending on a story that has less to do with romance and more to do with Flora’s coming to terms with her life and her choices.
Colgan has written enjoyable Chick Lit novels before, most notably Amanda’s Wedding and Talking to Addison, but The Boy I Loved Before is a pleasant surprise step forward. As someone who is reliving her own adolescence by raising a teenaged daughter, I could identify with Flora’s predicament, as well as thank my lucky stars that in reality, we only have to endure high school once.