Guide A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity: A Novel

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Editorial Reviews. From Publishers Weekly. Seidel catalogues the trials of upper- middle-class family life in a novel that will appeal primarily to the sort of people.
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Because we are always running into people we know while shopping in little stores with wrought-iron bistro tables on the sidewalks, our lives have a pleasant small-town feel. Our neighborhood is a theme-park version of a small town, but having grown up in an actual small town, I like the theme park better. My daughter's new teenaged thing continued through the rest of Labor Day weekend; the phone rang continually. On Monday, in hopes of making my five-foot-three self look taller, I put on a cotton sweater that was the same shade of bottle green as my twill slacks.

Since my eyes are greenish and I had used freckle-avoidance sunscreen faithfully this summer, I thought I looked pretty good.

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Erin, however, took one look at me and moaned, "Oh, Mom, you match, " as if that were some kind of biblical sin. An hour later she asked if she could get her hair highlighted. She and her friends go to the Alden School, a small academically oriented private school with a specialty in music. It used to be a prim all-girls school — it was founded at the turn of the previous century under the delicious name of "Miss Alden's School" — and in those days the students wore uniforms.

About fifteen years ago financial woes forced the school to become coed, and the uniforms have been replaced by a dress code that is Byzantine in its complexity. Students may not wear blue denim, but black denim is acceptable. Open-toed shoes may be worn as long as the shoe has a strap wrapping around the back of the ankle.


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Shirts must have a collar, but girls may wear jewel-necked shirts as long as the neck edge is finished with a contrasting trim or a faggoting or other decorative stitch. Fortunately my husband and I are both lawyers, and so with our combined legal training and my knowledge of garment construction techniques — I sew and so unlike most people I do know what a faggoting stitch is — we are able to keep our children in compliance with the dress code. I can't imagine how other families do it.


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Erin's first-day-of-school outfit Tuesday morning didn't comply with the spirit of the dress code, but when she came down the back stairs into the kitchen, I could spot no technical violations. She was wearing a little cotton-fleece drawstring skirt and a white collared blouse that was suitably tucked into the skirt's waistband.

But the blouse was unbuttoned and beneath it she was wearing a turquoise tank top. The principal of the middle school was not going to like the extent to which the skirt resembled athletic wear, but fortunately we had a new headmaster this year, and I felt sure he would not form a committee for the purpose of adding to the dress code a prohibition against cotton-fleece drawstring skirts. The school is housed on the grounds of an old estate near Sibley Hospital. The high school and the administrative offices are in the seedily grand white mansion, which faces a broad, green lawn that we have not yet turned into a soccer field.

Sloping behind the mansion are wooded grounds whose trees soften the lines of the two modern buildings that house the lower school and the middle school. Normally my friends and I carpool to the kids' many activities with a schedule that makes both the school's dress and the nation's tax codes look straightforward, but on the first day of school each family takes and picks up its own children.

So in the afternoon I parked on a neighborhood street — rules governing the formation and behavior of automobiles in the carpool line take up two and a half pages of the school handbook — followed a well-worn path through the trees, and emerged into the rear parking lot that was between the lower- and the middle-school buildings. In good weather the students wait for their rides outside, and I could see my seven-year-old son on the lower-school playground in the midst of some sort of controlled seven-year-old rowdiness.

I waved to him and then turned to the middle school to look for Erin.

Although this was not specified in the handbook, the eighth graders always wait for their rides near the big oak tree, the seventh graders take over the steps, and the sixth graders are on the blacktop. I didn't see Erin at first, but as I moved closer to the blacktop, I spotted her in the middle of a group of sixth-grade girls.

Indeed she and her three closest friends — the daughters of my three closest friends — were right in the middle of the group, and they were dressed virtually identically in these sweatpants- like skirts, unbuttoned but tucked-in white blouses, and vividly colored tanks. The other girls, none of whom had on this precise combination of garments, were hovering around the four of them. The farther a girl was standing from our four, the less animated she was. If I hadn't known better, I would have said that my daughter and her friends were the popular girls. I had been a smart girl in the middle of Indiana.

There was no way that I had been popular.

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I had had my place, I hadn't been a complete outcast, but on a normal day I had felt that every other girl in the school — at least among those worth thinking about — was prettier and better dressed. So I certainly wanted my daughter to feel better about her clothes and her friends than I had. I didn't want her to feel as if she didn't belong. I didn't want her to be the one standing at the edge of a group, not knowing whom to talk to.

I didn't want her to feel left out, but I had never expected her to be popular. Popular girls were manipulative little blond bitch-goddesses.

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Erin's hair was an unhighlighted brown. I saw my friend Mimi coming across the parking lot. Her daughter, Rachel, was also wearing the drawstring skirt, white blouse, and bright tank. She was short, Jewish, and overweight. She did a great job of putting herself together; her dark hair was short and spiky, and she was not afraid to use her breadth as a canvas. Some days she was a walking art gallery. Today her jacket was hand-painted silk, with cascades of vermilion lilies and lime accents. Her jewelry was richly colored fused-glass pieces from the artists at the Glen Echo studios.

She had perfect skin: flawlessly smooth without a single freckle or acne scar. I like thinking about texture, and so I had encouraged her to emphasize the loveliness of her skin by wearing smooth, finely woven fabrics. She had taken my advice and so her clothes and scarves floated around her with a wonderful liquidness.

You would no more ask whether she looked fat than you would ask that about the Capitol. But she couldn't have had such confidence in her teen years. She did. The popular girls never talked to me. In the seventy-two hours since discovering that my daughter was a teenager, I had read about forty thousand books on parenting teenaged girls. I wasn't sure how much they were going to help.

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One had suggested that if my daughter became pregnant, we should first decide who had ownership of the issue. I have no idea what I would do in such a situation — Erin hadn't started menstruating yet — but a calm discussion of who "owned" the issue probably wouldn't happen right off. Another book had warned me to be aware of the "dark side" of raising a child in an affluent home; apparently extreme anxiety about being thrown in the poorhouse builds character. If you believe these books, teenaged girls are confused, anxious, depressed, and destructive.

We need to teach our daughters how to identify their pain, the source of which is skinny fashion models, high-achieving parents, and above all else, popular girls. Popular girls shatter the self-esteem of other girls; they persecute outsiders, they torment, tease, bully, exclude, and scapegoat. The books were full of advice on how to arm your child against these Queen Bees, but none of the books, not a one, said what you should do if your own child was popular.

Erin looked pretty and happy as she stood in that crowd of girls, and frankly, that made me feel good. I was glad that she was happy. I had worked hard to have her be happy. Chattering away, she was gesturing with her arms, her body moving freely.

If her back was turned toward one child, a moment later she was facing that child with her back to someone else. She didn't seem to be torturing anyone to establish her own status.

A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity

The narrator is also struggling a bit with her identity - she chooses to stay home, but what or who is she without her career as a lawyer, and how does she achieve balance in her life? I loved it - I've felt those same feelings as a stay-at-home mom how she feels when at her husband's business party someone asks her "what do you do?

Anyway, it's a quick, entertaining read, and I'd recommend it to anyone! View all 4 comments. Aug 04, LeeAnne rated it it was ok Shelves: humor , family-drama. Four suburban "soccer moms" and their middle-school-aged daughters struggle to figure out where they belong as their friendships fall apart over due to significant shifts in each of their status, power and popularity. I live in the same location as the characters in this book and when I read the book I had two middle-school-aged daughters enrolled in a local Independent School.

My kids played sports against many of the schools mentioned in this book.