Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Jessica Darling

Go To

The Jessica Darling series of novels by Megan McCafferty are tragicomic slice-of-life stories chronicling the life of their smart, cynical and perpetually gloomy eponymous protagonist from her sixteenth birthday up through her mid-twenties. Along the way, she tries to figure out her place in a world that constantly strikes her as bizarre, suffers a number of demoralising setbacks and lessons in humility, and enjoys an on-again, off-again relationship with reformed bad boy Marcus Flutie.

The story is told partly through journal entries, partly through letters Jessica writes to her best friend Hope, who moved to the other side of the country just before the start of the first book, and later to a number of other characters. As such it is prone to instances of Unreliable Narrator, but also to a lot of Jessica's hilariously scathing takes on other people's, and her own, follies and dysfunctions.

There are five books in the main series:

  • Sloppy Firsts
  • Second Helpings
  • Charmed Thirds
  • Fourth Comings
  • Perfect Fifths

McCafferty has also written three prequel novels, dealing with Jessica's first year in junior high:

  • Jessica Darling's It List: The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Popularity, Prettiness & Perfection
  • Jessica Darling's It List 2: The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Friends, Foes & Faux Friends
  • Jessica Darling's It List 3: The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Stressing, Obsessing & Second-Guessing

Nickelodeon is developing an adaptation of Sloppy Firsts.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Accidental Athlete: Sort of - Jess becomes an Accidental School Mascot by messing up her cheerleader tryouts. It turns out that she's got a rare knack for looking hilarious while falling on her face. Later played more straight as she gets recruited to the track team when the coach sees how much speed she can pick up while fleeing from a lovesick goose wearing a fifty-pound seagull costume.
  • A-Cup Angst: Jessica often bemoans her "A-minus cup" bust.
  • Attention Deficit... Oh, Shiny!: Marcus gets formally diagnosed with Attention Deficiency Disorder in Sloppy Firsts, though he personally thinks that that's just a label people like to slap on those who don't conform.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Marcus and Jessica.
  • Betty and Veronica:
    • Scotty and Marcus are respectively the Betty and Veronica for Jessica's Archie, arguably switching roles after Scotty gets popular and Takes A Level In Jerkass. Marcus wins.
    • Bridget (Betty) competes with The Vamp Manda (Veronica) for the affections of her long-term beau Burke (Archie). Manda wins.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Jessica notes that for all the effort she spends on trying to diet them away, Sara actually looks a lot better with her extra pounds than without them.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Jessica's opinion, as expressed in the third book, is that while she isn't sure if it's better per se, it sure doesn't hurt.
  • Brainless Beauty: Jessica's estimation of Bridget in the first book, though she eventually has to admit that Bridget is smarter than she seems. Bethany is a straighter example, since she seems to actively go out of her way to avoid having to think.
  • But I Would Really Enjoy It: Towards the end of the first book, Jess writes a list of reasons why she should and should not sleep with Marcus. The "should not" list has a lot of items on it. The "should" list has a single one:
    I want to. Oh, God, do I want to.
  • Character Development: A running theme of the series is that people keep changing, and that holding on to fixed impressions of what they're like is a mistake.
  • Children Raise You: Bethany actually matures slightly after having a daughter. Slightly, mind you.
  • Cool Loser: Jessica gets called out on being one by a lot of other students in college, who were genuine losers in high school and aren't impressed by the fact that while she was objectively pretty successful, she still always felt pathetic and miserable.
  • Cool Old Lady: Jessica's grandmother believes in making the most of retirement home life.
  • D-Cup Distress: Manda claims to hate her well-developed bust. Jess grumpily notes that that doesn't stop her from always wearing borderline-Stripperific clothes that show it off to best advantage.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Scotty spends the first book being this. In the second book, he drops the Dogged part. And sadly also the Nice Guy part.
  • Do You Want to Copulate?: Len tells Jess out of nowhere in the third book that he thinks they should have sex. He means for it to come across as suave and laid-back, but though she finds it somewhat charming, it's for other reasons.
  • The Eeyore: Jessica just can't seem to help being miserable, no matter where she is and no matter how well things seem to be going. Others frequently accuse her of never being satisfied, and she spends a lot of time wondering just what's wrong with her.
  • Embarrassing Nickname:
    • Jessica's father likes to call her "Notso" as a non-too-subtle comment on her prickly disposition - as in, "Jessica Not-So-Darling." Jessica, possibly proving his point, is not amused. She also hates being called "Jessie," preferring either "Jess" or "Jessica." Even worse is the name she finds out that people are calling her behind her back in seventh grade - "the Woodchick," because she's the only girl taking woodshop class and also flat as a board.
    • Sara, who is sensitive about her weight, does not enjoy being called "Bruiser."
    • Marcus was known as Krispy Kreme in high school, though he doesn't seem to have let it get to him. (and it was at least half a compliment of sorts) note 
  • Endearingly Dorky: Jess claims to prefer guys who are "geeky-cute." Her actual dating track record casts some doubt on that, though. Len fits this trope to a T, but when he and Jessica are dating she's constantly bored out of her skull because he's too much of a goodie-two-shoes Nice Guy to provide the sort of intellectual challenge that she actually seems to want from a guy.
  • Erudite Stoner: Marcus, until he cleans up. Bridget claims that Jessica just generally tends to go for boys of the "stonah lovah" variety.
  • First Person Snarker: Jess, of course.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The summer writing class Jessica attends in Second Helpings is called SPECIAL (Summer Pre-College Enrichment Curriculum in Artistic Learning).
  • Good Bad Girl: Manda thinks she is this and that her promiscuity is a sign of her refusal to bow to patriarchal sexual norms, but Jessica is definitely not convinced. Later played more straight with Jessica's college friend Dexy though in her case, her zest for life turns out to be a coping mechanism to stave off clinical depression, but on the whole, Jessica doesn't think much of girls or guys who she sees as oversexed.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted. When Jessica briefly worries that she's pregnant in book three, she knows all along that she'll have to get an abortion if she is. In theory that's because she's on a medication that causes fetal deformities, but she admits to herself that it wouldn't matter if she weren't - at age nineteen, she's just not anywhere near ready.
  • Happy Ending Override: The main theme of the third book. The second book ends with Jess finally graduating from the high school she thought was hell, about to leave the small town where she felt Surrounded by Idiots to move to the big city and attend the college of her dreams, and in a relationship with a guy she's crazy about. Then life after high school turns out to be even harder and more confusing, just in other ways. Jess spends a lot of time in the third book ruminating on just how stupid she was to think that everything would be smooth sailing from now on.
  • Harsher in Hindsight: In-Universe. Jessica recalls Hope's brother Heath making her laugh by pretending to snort powdered sugar like cocaine, and how that memory turned a lot less funny after he died from a drug overdose six months later.
  • He's All Grown Up:
    • Percy gains a lot of height and a generally more manly appearance over the summer, which shocks Jessica, who's gotten used to thinking about him as that weedy kid with a Precocious Crush on her.
      This wasn't Pepe le Pew. This was Pepe le Puberty.
    • Len manages to lose his zits between junior and senior year. To Jessica's surprise, it turns out that there was a complete hottie hiding beneath them. The effect is somewhat ruined by his nerdy personality remaining the same, though.
  • High School: The setting for the first two novels and the prequels, which as usual for the trope treat the high school drama as Serious Business. That part is subverted in the third, though, much of which is devoted to Jessica being astonished at how little it all turned out to mean once she got out into the real world.
  • Hot for Teacher: By her own admission (and to her embarrassment, especially when he finds out about it), Jessica for Mac when attending SPECIAL.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: While she admits that it feeds into the "promiscous man = stud, promiscous woman = slut" Double Standard, Jessica actually believes this, to a point. That doesn't mean she likes seeing guys sleeping around, mind, only that she's not surprised.
  • Immediate Sequel: In contrast with the main series, where months or years go by between installments, the prequel novels follow each other seamlessly as well as just generally having a much compressed time frame (all three of them take place during the first semester of Jessica's first year in junior high). Lampshaded at one point when Jessica says that it feels like the events of the last book was ages ago and her grandmother tells her that that's because time seems to go by very slowly when you're twelve years old.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Happens to poor Jess more than once.
  • It's All About Me: Bethany starts out this way, until she has a baby and broadens her horizons a little. At which point she promptly turns around and accuses Jessica of being this way.
  • Jerk Jock: Scotty turns into one in the second book. At one point, he claims that he doesn't actually want to be one, but it's the only way to get laid, and getting laid is the one thing a guy must do. Jessica is less than sympathetic.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Marcus, who starts out trying to seduce Jessica basically as a self-imposed challenge, but then falls in love with her for real.
  • Lighter and Softer: The prequel series. While Jessica is still miserable most of the time, since she's a lot younger there than in the main books, the problems she faces are less weighty and serious.
  • Like Parent, Like Child: Jessica's mom claims this about Jessica and her dad.
    Mom: You're both perfectionists. You're both hardheaded. You both have trouble dealing with people. You both get depressed when things don't go your way. You both think too much. You both keep your feelings inside, then explode at inopportune moments.
  • Manly Gay: Paul, as it turns out.
  • The Matchmaker: Jessica's mom is forever dropping unsubtle hints about how Jessica should really take more interest in one guy or another, he's really quite a catch and I think he likes you, you know, and anyway you can't be too choosy or else you'll be alone forever. Jess, needless to say, is not appreciative of her efforts.
  • Meaningful Name: Hope. The reason why Jessica is so depressed for the entire first book is because she has lost Hope.
  • Mood Whiplash: Quite often. In one notable example, Jessica has been working as a tutor for a group of neurotic high school overachievers to help them choose and get into the right university. Finally, after one too many snotty comments about how anyone who didn't go to Harvard has failed at life, she snaps and goes on an absolutely magnificent rant about how none of what they think is important now is going to matter in a few short years, how their problems and concerns are ones that only spoiled upper-middle-class brats care about, and how even if they by sheer accident make all the right life choices they might still end up failing or dying, because Life Isn't Fair. Then, right at the heels of that, the chapter ends with:
    I got fired, of course.
  • Nice Girl: While she can be a bit thoughtless at times, Bridget is probably the sweetest character in the books.
  • The Nicknamer:
    • Jessica is fond of coming up with sarcastic nicknames for people, though she rarely calls people by them to their faces but sticks to using them in her journal.
    • Mr. Pudel, Jessica's seventh grade woodshop teacher, claims to have a condition that prevents him from learning people's names and therefore assigns his students nicknames, most of them embarrassing. Jessica gets off relatively easy by being called "Clementine" (as in, "oh my darling...").
  • No Periods, Period: Averted, Jessica's period gets mentioned on occasion, though mostly for its absence. Apparently she's prone to not getting it when she's going through a stressful time, which she finds upsetting in the first book and even more so when it happens again in the third - because she's sexually active at the time, and at first she's terrified that she's pregnant.
  • Numbered Sequels: Each book in both the main series and the prequel series incorporates its number in the title.
  • The Obi-Wannabe: Bethany in the prequel series would like to think that she's a Cool Big Sis dispensing sage advice for how to succeed in junior high. The problem is, the items on her "IT Lists" are not only of questionable value, but are also written as cutesy one-liners that could really use some explanation for what they're supposed to mean. Jessica actually figures that out by the end of the first book, but she still decides to continue going along with the lists, because at least they make her life interesting.
  • Old Shame: In-Universe. Hy ends up feeling this way about her book about Jessica and her friends, and is grateful when the movie version ends up in Development Hell.
  • Once a Season:
    • Each of the first three books ends with Jessica and Hope meeting up.
    • Each of the prequels starts with Bethany giving Jessica an "IT List" that she claims will help her with her current source of angst.
  • Parents as People: Jessica's parents are far from perfect, but they try.
  • Pregnancy Scare: Jess has one in book three, though it takes place between chapters and is told in retrospect.
  • Pseudo-Romantic Friendship: Jess and Hope were extremely close, to the point where Hope moving away throws Jess into a year-long depression. Despite that, Jess is surprised and annoyed that anyone would think that she's a "vagitarian."
  • Retcon: In Sloppy Firsts Jessica claims that the events of the book marks the first time she and Marcus have ever talked to each other. The prequel series shows that they not only interacting quite a lot back when they were in junior high, but actually developed much the same dynamic (him being bizarre and obnoxious, her being alternately annoyed and fascinated) as they have in Sloppy Firsts.
  • Sex Is Evil: Len believes that young people should just not have sex, not for any particular moral reasons but because they're not ready to face the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmittable disease. In the third book, he turns out to have lost this along with his other youthful certainties, and Jessica ends up taking his virginity.
  • Shipper on Deck: Jessica's grandmother Gladdie was this for her and Marcus.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Jessica's relationship with Kieran in the third book is the epitome of this, to the point that we at one point see them undressing each other while arguing heatedly about philosophy.
  • The Snark Knight: Jessica.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Paul joins a protest group made up entirely of these in college. Jess is initially excited to meet them, but is quickly put off by their self-righteousness and the way they seem to be against absolutely everything.
  • Statuesque Stunner: Hope is six foot tall, which along with her bright red hair gives her a very striking appearance.
  • Straw Feminist: Manda tends to justify her questionable behavior with feminist rhetoric, to Jessica's disgust. Jessica also considers herself a feminist, mind you, but in a more rudimentary girls-are-worth-as-much-as-boys way that doesn't use as much dogma and name-dropping.
  • Stylistic Suck: Hy's book is a mess of clichéd observations about suburban teens and poorly integrated slang terms. With a few years of distance, Hy couldn't agree more.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Jessica's estimation of her situation in high school, and to a lesser degree in life at large. It's often hinted that it's not quite as bad as she thinks, though.
  • The Unfavorite: Jessica, compared to her picture-perfect sister Bethany.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Jessica ends up being wrong about a lot of things, especially due to failing to notice other people's Character Development.
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Scotty.
  • Verbal Tic:
    • Sara can't go two sentences without using the terms "omigod!" or "quote-unquote." Or both.
    • Len speaks in fragmented sentences with a lot of "uhm"s and "er"s.
    • Mac goes "tch" a lot, typically when he feels that Jessica has said something unusually stupid.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Jess and Bridget, in the first book. They grow closer again over the course of the series.
  • World Half Full: What Jessica tends to conclude in her more peaceful moments. No one's perfect, nothing quite lives up to the hype, the world only rarely makes sense and all good things eventually end. But at the same time, most people aren't as bad as they might seem either, your family and friends will love you as well as they can, and there's still a lot of joy to be found in life while it lasts.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Jess gets an unintentional one when someone writes a book very thinly based on Jessica and her friends. The characters based on her friends are all portrayed as pathetic idiots, while "Jenn Sweet" is described practically in glowing terms. The best Jess can figure is that the author made the character out to be what Jess herself could be if she wasn't such a screwup, but when she actually meets the author again and asks about it, the author is just confused - the Jenn Sweet character is based exactly on how she saw Jessica, as someone who was a lot more awesome than she was aware of.