It figures that the man partially responsible for dispensing with both Ginsberg and his nipple on this week’s Mad Men would also deliver that rare gem amongst so many cubic zirconia: the teen lit lady antihero. David Iserson, veteran writer from all your favorite things like Mad Men, New Girl and Saturday Night Live, gives us just that in Astrid Krieger, the snark-spewing heroine of his debut novel Firecracker.
From the rocket ship in the backyard of her family’s estate where she lives, Astrid Krieger plots her revenge on those she suspects of conspiring to kick her out of Bristol Academy and forced to walk amongst the unwashed masses in public school. Astrid, the queen of soulless self-awareness, loves only one person in the world: her grandfather, a wealthy politician swimming in dirty nuclear warhead money (hence the backyard rocket). Everyone else in her life serves purely practical purposes, remaining only insofar as they’re relevant to Astrid’s aims for the day.
She’s kicked out of Bristol when one of her emissaries rats her out for cheating. This, in addition to a long rap sheet that includes a good number of arrests for a teenager, means she’s charged with some serious counseling with Dean Rein and sentenced to the cruel fate that awaits every public school student. Astrid strikes a deal with the Dean: if she’s able to do five really nice things, truly nice with no personal interest attached, he’ll consider re-enrolling her. Until then, she must endure the urine-scented hallways of Cadorette High School with only hair-eating loser Lucy Redlich, and the indefatigable Noah for company. Former Bristol student and star-crossed lover Pierre joins Astrid at Cadorette, but she does everything in her power to avoid spending time with this Slavic weirdo who goes around calling himself her boyfriend.
Astrid finds herself accidentally doing genuine good, pulling a Cher Horowitz on Lucy (clearly the Ty in the Clueless metaphor here) in hopes of making her high school experience slightly less awful. She almost certainly purposely saves her sister Lisbet’s wedding day from disaster. And she finds herself accidentally, though sincerely, getting close to Noah, who seems almost too good to be true, as far as public high school love-interests go.
But it all comes crashing down when Astrid starts to realize that the people she thought she could trust and the people she could count on to be awful aren’t all that reliable in either sense. The confident master of sarcasm and maestro of sidekicks starts to lose her touch, when – as all teens do – she walks smack into an identity crisis.
Astrid’s story is a refreshing change from all the insecure high schoolers and underdog protagonists, the shaky-legged dystopian heroines with their sensible shoes and Eileen Fisher government-issue smocks. She loves herself, she’s confident, and she doesn’t give a crap about anyone else. But even more refreshing than that- she’s knocked down a peg when that confidence is shaken and she’s forced to test her worldview when a challenge arises.
Iserson’s mastered the turn of phrase, and Astrid spits fire with the cool ease of a teenage Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He’s deft with a character description, and cuts to the quick establishing key characters as “the one who eats her own hair,” or “looks like a tree.” He’s economical with his words and it makes room for more laugh-out-loud passages, all firmly rooted in Astrid’s singular voice. You know exactly where you are when he says, “Bristol smelled like freshly cut grass and diamond earrings.” A place for rich people.
Firecracker is a fast and funny read with a heroine you’ll love without hating, despite how little she’d like that. It’s just out now in paperback.