The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs

By Matthew Dicks

(St. Martin’s Press, $24.99, 224 pages)

Who is this author

For Matthew Dicks,  it’s all about “telling stories on the page and on the stage.”

You may have read interviews with Dicks in The Courant; there have been at least three. That’s because Dicks, an elementary school teacher in West Hartford who lives in Newington, has made a successful career as an author and a storyteller, not to mention as a contributor to local publications , The Huffington Post and The Christian Science Monitor,  and as a wedding DJ, life coach and minister. Dicks, who grew up (and into trouble in high school in Blackstone, MA), is also a Moth StorySLAM champion and a co-founder with his wife, Elysha, of Speak Up, is a Hartford-area storytelling organization. His earlier novels are Something Missing, Unexpectedly Milo, and Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, which became an international bestseller.

What is this book about?

Wife, mother of grumpy, punky, tattooed teenager Polly and an underappreciated studio and art photographer, shy Caroline Jacobs is an adult still trapped in teenage angst. Long ago, Emily, her best friend rejected her publically in order to fit in better with the “cool kids,” leaving poor unconfident Caroline hurt and abandoned and afraid to speak her mind. Living in this social prison of her own device for 25 years, Caroline seems unlikely to break free, until the obnoxious president of the local PTO pushes her beyond her comfort zone and Caroline surprises her, the other parents and herself by dropping the F bomb and telling her off. This explosion of truth-telling propels Caroline to yank her recalcitrant daughter out of school and set off to her old hometown to finally right the wrong done to her many years ago. When she arrives, she finds many things have changed, but not all. By the time she leaves, many more changes have taken place and no one is more surprised than the newly confident Caroline and her new champion, her daughter Polly.

Why you’ll like it:

Dicks has the gift of understanding what makes people tick, and when those people are not your ordinary folks, he guides us  to understand them, too. His protagonists have included a guy who breaks into homes not to steal things but to leave stuff he thinks  the owners might want or need; a man with OCD who cannot resist that ssssss sound a jar of jelly makes when you open the cap and the imaginary friend of a little boy on the autism spectrum, who saves his young pal from kidnapping with the help of other imaginary friends. Caroline, his first female protagonist, fits right in to this collection of odd but loveable people with her stunted sense of self, and just like Dicks’ other characters, she is headed for a brighter future. Dicks’ books abound with humor, kindness, insight and unusual characters so piquant and poignant that you will not soon forget them.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “It all starts with the F-bomb. Quiet, shy pushover Caroline has had enough. Her expletive is directed straight at the PTO president Mrs. Denali, who has been passive-aggressively calling out the parents for not pulling their weight in volunteering. The next day, while Caroline considers how best to apologize to Mrs. Denali, she receives a phone call from the high school. Her 15-year-old daughter Polly has a much stronger backbone; she’s been suspended for punching, of all people, Mrs. Denali’s daughter. On a whim, Caroline decides to break her daughter out of school to drive to her hometown. She hopes to confront her childhood best friend Emily Kaplan, who humiliated her one day in the school cafeteria 25 years ago, forever changing the trajectory of Caroline’s life, or so she thinks. Caroline has placed a great deal of emphasis on her best friend’s betrayal and is now ready to stand up to her bully. But mustering that courage doesn’t come easy. VERDICT Dicks’s fourth novel (after Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend) is for anyone who has wished they’d stood up for themselves or delivered that perfect comeback at just the right time.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Just as easily as a middle school friend can turn into an enemy, so can a wallflower turn into a suburban warrior in this tale of a woman seeking the best comeback to a bully. Caroline Jacobs, a happily married photographer, usually keeps quiet, enduring insults, swallowing her pride, keeping out of the limelight. But when Mary Kate Dinali, smug and privileged Parent-Teacher Organization president, tries to bully shy Jessica Trent, Caroline finally stands up. To the shock of the entire PTO, Caroline expels an expletive, and soon her daughter, Polly, is defending her honor in the halls of Benjamin Banneker High School. Rather than face the principal and likely suspension, Caroline takes Polly on a road trip to face down her own demons from the past: specifically, Emily Kaplan, her childhood best friend who unceremoniously dumped Caroline 25 years ago in the middle of the school cafeteria, taking up with the far-more-cool Ellie Randolph. That public rejection ricocheted through Caroline’s life, coloring her understanding of her father’s leaving, her parents’ divorce, their descent into near poverty, and even her younger sister’s death. As the miles to Blackstone, Massachusetts pass under their wheels, Caroline tells Polly the story of her childhood. Polly slowly thaws, letting her mother’s heartache open the lines of communication. Where once punk Polly frostily shut out Caroline, she now begins to assist in the plot to confront Emily—taking things even further than Caroline had anticipated. Dicks (Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, 2012, etc.) well balances Caroline’s caution against Polly’s pluck, Caroline’s passive-aggressiveness against Polly’s outrage, creating a believable mother-daughter relationship. As each secret comes to light, he shapes their initially fraught ties into strong friendship. Heartwarming and often darkly humorous, this road trip for vengeance fairly cries out for filming.”

They say no one ever escapes their high-school insecurities. And Caroline Jacobs, the meek suburban-mom heroine of Dicks’ fourth novel, is no exception. After years of letting people push her around, Caroline feels something snap at a PTA meeting, and she blows up in a tirade of profanity at a popular, preppie parent. At that moment, she realizes exactly when her life went wrong and who is responsible. She pulls her daughter out of school and heads back to the small town where she grew up to confront her teenage nemesis, says the New York Daily News feature, This Week’s Must-Read Books.

When is it available?

You can borrow this funny and tender story from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Camp Field branch.

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