Just Another Day In My Insanely Real Life (2006) is Barbara Dee’s first novel (previous careers for Dee include lawyer, high school English teacher, and book reviewer).
The story revolves around Cassie and her family, specifically her mother and siblings.
Cassie’s family used to be a lot like the other family’s in her upscale neighborhood. They had a nice, sufficiently large house. They took vacations. twelve-year-old Cassie used to be on the swim team at their sports club. Her older sister, Miranda, didn’t have to worry about doing the shopping after school. Six-year-old Jackson never used to spend so much time alone in his room.
That was all before Cassie’s father “left the picture” and the remaining family had to move into a “unit” house in the poorer part of town. Shunned by her old friends, hated by her English teacher, and utterly unnoticed at home–Cassie tries to deal with all of her mounting problems on her own. This novel is the story of why and how those efforts fail. And how Cassie picks herself up again afterwards.
Cassie is definitely a strong character. Thanks to her neglectful sister and overworked mother, Cassie is largely the only one paying attention to family concerns. And she works really hard to try and handle all of that. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make her a particularly real or likable character.
My first issue is that Cassie is really shallow. After the first few pages of the novel it’s clear that her old friends (the ones who ignore her now) were jerks and that she is better off without them. But Cassie doesn’t see that right away, fine she’s only twelve. The thing is, even after she does realize as much Cassie continues to try to be friendly with them and ignore Bess, the girl who is obviously going to be a way better friend in the long run.
As the novel progresses, Dee tries to show Cassie growing as a character. I can see that happening. But it’s two steps forward and then two steps back so that even at the end of the novel Cassie is still making disparaging remarks that she was supposed to have moved past by now. The recurring point being cracks about Bess’ weight. Bess is overweight and Cassie continues to wonder how Bess can possibly weigh so much when she never eats at school posturing that she might, scarily, binge at home. Later, after the girls become friendlier, Cassie finds herself surprised to learn that Bess lives in a really swank neighborhood. I found this entire subplot really infuriating. Cassie might as well meet an African American kid at school and be surprised that they live in a mansion. It’s just completely ridiculous and, the truth is, Dee does not have Cassie evolve enough on this point to make such observations even relevant.
I was also less than impressed by Dee’s writing style. The premise was interesting, as were the inclusions of Cassie’s fantasy novel (mirroring what’s going on in her real life), and even excerpts from her English class quizzes. But Dee never really takes the grammar thing to a high enough level that it should be in the book. I would have liked to see some kind of appendix explaining some of the English rules mentioned (who/whom for instance) since Dee spent so much of the novel mentioning them.
Throughout the narrative Dee was at pains to make Cassie seem real, one might even venture “insanely” so. But she never quites get there. Cassie uses quotes a lot when she’s narrating to discuss Dad being “out of the picture” and the “unit” the family lives in. That gets old after the second chapter. And, in terms of narration, it becomes inadequate. Points where Cassie knows nothing about what’s going on (Why is Dad “out of the picture?” Where does Miranda go after school when she’s supposed to be at home?) are never fully developed, making the novel seem more half baked than insanely real.
Possible Pairings: You Look Different in Real Life by Jennifer Castle, Blind by Rachel DeWoskin, A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass, The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaefer, Jungle Crossing by Sydney Salter