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The Birthday Girl


The Birthday Girl

Blonde, sun-kissed, leggy and rich, Ellie de Florent-Stinson has it all --- and she doesn’t look a day over 39. Or at least that’s what everyone traipsing out to celebrate her big 40th birthday in Palm Springs tells her. In Ellie’s crew, your 40th is not just another milestone, but a grand event --- something one celebrates with a safari in Africa or a Versailles-inspired ball. So naturally, Ellie has gone above and beyond, not just by renting a house in Palm Springs, but by buying one. The only problem is that she and the company she owns are in massive debt, her (steadily growing overweight) husband, Todd, is unemployed (and possibly cheating), and to add insult to injury, the flowers she had shipped in for her big party are wilting.

In Melissa de la Cruz’s THE BIRTHDAY GIRL, readers get a firsthand look at the world of millionaires and billionaires, their glittering social lives, and what one woman will do to make sure she never loses her access to the world of the rich and famous.

As Ellie dashes around her luxurious Palm Springs home making last-minute preparations for her party, de la Cruz alternates chapters between present day and Ellie’s past, back when she was a wide-eyed 15-year-old preparing to celebrate her 16th birthday. Back then, Ellie was what you might endearingly call “trailer trash, but with a lot of gumption,” and she and her best friend had a different kind of power. Young, willowy, beautiful and oh-so-tempting, Leo and Mish were bad girls, and their small, sleepy town was at their mercy as they ran around shoplifting, drinking, doing drugs and meeting boys.

"With her return to adult fiction, de la Cruz demonstrates a keen knowledge of pop culture, a nod to timely issues like the #MeToo movement, and, most of all, an understanding of what makes good fiction great."

Seeing both sides of Ellie, one thing is immediately clear: she is wildly insecure, desperately envious and cuttingly ambitious. In other words, a “Real Housewife” with a Lifetime-worthy backstory. In present day, Ellie worries that her husband is unfaithful, that her wealthy friends (including three billionaires!) don’t like her, that her stepdaughter is failing out of college, and that the Vanity Fair photographer will not show up before she and her guests head to the afterparty. At 16, Ellie is just as jealous of her peers, but she has some real depth, too. She is tired of playing second string to her prettier, skinnier best friend, and is ready to take matters into her own hands to make her 16th birthday memorable.

De la Cruz puts her young adult writing skills to terrific use with 16-year-olds Leo and Mish. All of the nuances of their friendship are laid out carefully and compassionately, from the comfortable silences to the backhanded compliments. As they try to find boys to celebrate with, cross paths with the local drug dealer and head to an uncomfortable high school party, they sound and behave like real teens, and de la Cruz writes them with admirable respect. These were, admittedly, my favorite chapters to read, not only because they were well written but because they made me wonder, What happened in 24 years to turn this sweet, if reckless, girl into the vapid Ellie of 40? De la Cruz spins an intriguing but cozy mystery to fill in the blanks and throws in the menacing air of murder for good measure.

I don’t think I'm alone when I say that Ellie is categorically unlikable. She whines over her finances, yet has bought an entire house just for a party, and criticizes her husband’s weight but is terrified at the thought of his possible infidelity. Perhaps her one redeeming quality is her love for her children, of which she has four, including Todd’s daughter from a previous marriage, whom she clearly adores. She also has at least one true friend, who provides a sort of unwritten testimonial for readers --- if he likes her, she must have good qualities. But even at her worst, there is something deliciously voyeuristic about watching her panic over the party. You will root for her as much as you will want her to fail.

Jumping back and forth between two milestone birthdays, de la Cruz shows readers what happens when a hardscrabble young teen does the impossible and becomes richer than even the richest boy in her high school --- and what it then means when she is threatened with losing it all. When a mysterious guest shows up at her party, tying the two birthdays together in a way that terrifies Ellie to her core, she is forced to confront some painful truths about her youth and how she really got to where she is now.

THE BIRTHDAY GIRL is pure fun: birthday parties, teenage ennui and a hearty dose of suspense make this an easy but unputdownable read. Although the main character is 40 for half of the story, I easily could see mature teens enjoying this book, and the appeal for adults is obvious. With her return to adult fiction, de la Cruz demonstrates a keen knowledge of pop culture, a nod to timely issues like the #MeToo movement, and, most of all, an understanding of what makes good fiction great.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 9, 2019

The Birthday Girl
by Melissa de la Cruz