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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Bradley, Alex 24 Girls in 7 Days.
Dutton, 2005 265p
Library ed. ISBN 0-525-47369-6 $15.99
Gr. 7-12

After Jack Grammar goes down in flames when asking a girl to the senior prom, his dear friends Natalie and Percy secretly run a personal ad in his name soliciting a date for the dance. Responses come flooding in such number that a nervous Jack and his overhelpful friends work out a plan: in the week remaining before the prom, he will date a short list of twenty-four girls, from whom he will choose his partner for the dance. Throw in a mysterious pseudonymous email correspondent and you've got a plot that in unskilled hands could be a corny yukkety-yuk fest; in Bradley's hands, you get a helplessly funny, subtly meaningful, and irresistibly charming account of one boy's intensive education in relationships of all kinds.

Jack may harbor some of the houndish impulses of his age group (he's indignant at the ad's assertion that “Jack Grammar would never try to fondle your butt during a slow dance”), but he is an anxious amateur with girls; he's been kissed all of once, he's outstripped by his five-year-old nephew in girlfriend numbers, and he babbles idiotically at any inkling of romantic possibility, a state with which readers will identify even as they take notes on his education. Yet behind that social embarrassment lurks a good guy who gets along with his friends' grandmothers and younger sisters, and, more importantly, a genuine romantic, indoctrinated by his older sisters' long-ago games of prom with five-year-old Jack as the handsome escort (“I loved the idea that prom was a night of magic and possibility. I believed in prom before most boys had even heard of it, and I still believed. Not that I'd ever admitted that to anyone”). It's therefore not surprising that he genuinely warms to many of his ad respondents, who are always depicted interestingly no matter how briefly, but that he remains uncertain about what romantic path he should take.

The book's sparkling wit would make even the most conventional romance an enjoyable read, but the plot keeps feinting at predictability and delivering surprises instead. Readers may think they know where they are with plot turns such as Jack's awakened romantic interest in his female best friend (after a detailed kissing lesson from which many readers will doubtless also benefit) or his growing rapport with his enigmatic email pal, but these elements prove to be more opportunities for freshness and originality while still remaining true to the dynamics of the story. And despite some missteps, misbehavior, and misunderstandings, there are really no villains here (the social anxiety of Jack's situation provides sufficient tension); the book instead views humanity with unusual affection, regretting the unintentional hurts Jack inflicts along his way and quietly illustrating the many and unexpected possibilities to be found in people once we get to know them. And that's true even of Jack himself. “You don't seem like you're hiding from the world,” says his sometime jogging partner about the changes she's observed, and she's right; he's not just realizing he likes what he finds out in the world, he's beginning to trust himself (with the encouragement of his mysterious correspondent) to deal with it.

Basically, this is the perfect literary valentine. The sincere sweetness and overall warmth of the book make it a gratifying counterbalance to the preponderantly cynical YA novels of romantic tribulations, yet there's enough humor and angst to ensure that it's easily as enjoyable (and enough intelligence to make it meaningful). Whether male or female, readers will empathize with Jack's uncertainty about the meaning and practice of romance, even as they share his yearning for its rewards, and many young women will long to be one of the magic twenty-four.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Robert Dale from 24 Girls in 7 Days ©2005. Used by permission of Dutton Books.

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This page was last updated on February 1, 2005.