Miranda Kenneally is known by young-adult fans for her Hundred Oaks series, beginning with Catching Jordan, the story of a girl who plays high-school football. The next four novels also focus on competitive, athletic girls in Nashville, but Kenneally takes a new turn in Jesse’s Girl, introducing a character who doesn’t understand the appeal of sports. As Maya Henry says, “I’m barely five feet two, and the only muscles I have are from holding my guitar and plucking the strings.”
When Kenneally steps into new territory for the sixth of her Nashville books, it’s appropriate for the plot to revolve around the music business. Structurally, the novel is divided into three sections: Side A, Side B, and a Bonus Track that ties things up. Chapters take their names from the titles of songs. (Kenneally used another clever structure, the marathon-runner’s journal, in Breathe Annie Breathe.) But despite its specific Music City setting, at its heart Jesse’s Girl is a universal girl-meets-boy romantic romp through a star-crossed Career Day which quickly comes to resemble Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and continues through the life lessons learned on that day.
Side A’s story opens backstage at the Opry, where budding musician Maya Henry reluctantly meets superstar Jesse Scott, who hasn’t yet learned that he will be her Career Day host. Jesse is jaded—he’s been in the spotlight since he was ten years old—and is rude to Maya, yet another unknown girl he finds in his dressing room. Maya responds in a nicely drawn mix of timidity and boldness. While she appreciates that she is in the presence of a massive star in the business she wants to pursue, she can’t stand country music, Jesse is not her “type,” and she has no intention of tolerating his rudeness.
The repartee between them takes off in the dressing room. Jesse snaps, “Did the Opry arrange for a ketchup expert to be at my beck and call?” After Maya’s comeback—“Clearly you need one”—she hits the fifty-seven on the ketchup bottle to make it flow. Later Jesse complains, “How could I forget I’m giving up my day off to hang out with a groupie?” Maya gives it right back to him: “In your dreams I’m a groupie.” Then when Jesse jogs up the stairs to dress for their outing, he turns to smirk, “Wait, Did you want to shadow me while I shower?’ And so it goes. Their relationship holds its combative, sexy, and sassy energy for the entire book.
Jesse is a superstar, and Maya’s family owns a car-repair shop, but despite these differences the pair have much in common, including a history of being betrayed. Maya has been kicked out of her own eighties-tribute band by the “almost boyfriend” she recruited only to have him turn her band into a heavy-metal group and take up with another bandmate. Jesse had a former girlfriend who sold intimate details to the tabloids, and his parents are a constant disappointment. Jesse and Maya end up escaping their keepers for a Career Day like no other, with madcap adventures involving motorcycles, Maseratis, boot-shopping, playgrounds, and water play—all while being pursued by both the police and the paparazzi.
In Side B, Maya returns to school to find her stock has gone up comically with people who formerly snubbed her. She declines an invitation to rejoin the band that dumped her, no longer willing to compromise musically just to be part of a group. When it is her turn to report back about Career Day, she tells the class, “I learned that I have to take chances if I want a chance at my dreams.” Her dream is music, and the chance she must take is performing solo. As this section of the book unfolds, Maya struggles to create her audition tape for the television show Wannabe Rocker and to do it without Jesse’s professional help.
As in her other books, Kenneally incorporates authentic details about her subject, in this case music, into the story. Jesse and Maya get to know each other through the guitar and vocals, and their growing friendship is tentative in a realistic way, their struggles believable. This author is particularly good with tough female characters. Maya stands her ground when confronted; she pushes up her sleeves and works under the hood in her family’s auto shop; she doesn’t need her overprotective brother to guard her. (But he does, and it’s funny. Kenneally’s fans will note that Sam from Catching Jordan is also Maya’s older brother—Jesse’s Girl thus offers lively glimpses of the way life turned out for Sam and Jordan.)
While Kenneally’s plot in Jesse’s Girl is somewhat predictable, it is enjoyably so, and the story is a cut above the usual romantic fantasy: Kenneally is careful to make it clear that this is not a Cinderella story about the average girl who snags the superstar. Maya wants to be in the business. Jesse wants to reclaim what he lost in early stardom. They are both willing to work for their passions. And as always, Kenneally serves up her story in fun and authentic settings all over Nashville.
Tagged: Children & YA