Elizabeth Clarry is a pupil at the posh Ashbury Academy, where her new English teacher has decided that the pupils need to be introduced to the fine art of letter writing. Each of the pupils are to write letters to a pupil at the neighbouring Brookfield school, in order to improve relations between the schools (Ashbury students think that the majority of Brookfielders are delinquents and drug-dealers, while Brookfield students think the Ashbury kids are spoiled, vacuous and snooty).
Elizabeth lives with her mother, who is absent a lot, but communicates with her through the medium of hilariously written all-caps notes that she leaves around the house. Elizabeth also seems to receive a large amount of snarky letters from her own subconscious, addressed from the Cold Hard Truth Association, or the Association of Teenagers (who feel that she is a dismal failure, both in her lack of rebelliousness and never having had a boyfriend and it would be easier for everyone if she just climbed into a fridge and died). Elizabeth's parents are divorced, and her father used to live in Canada, but has now moved back to Australia temporarily, and keeps wanting to see her and spend time with her. When Elizabeth isn't worrying about her distinct lack of coolness, her non-existent love life or her missing friend Celia, she tries to keep both parents happy, and she also enjoys long distance running.
Elizabeth's best friend Celia is clearly a rather unusual person, and in her letters to Christina, Elizabeth talks about the many different antics Celia has got up to in the past. This time, she's gone missing, though. Celia's mother seems to think everyone around her is overreacting, and that it's perfectly natural for a teenage girl to want to spread her wings and find herself. After a while, Elizabeth starts receiving post cards from Celia, who's run away with a circus.
Christina comes from a big family, and confides in Elizabeth about her wish for some privacy on occasion, which is difficult when you share a room with your younger sister, and her boyfriend troubles. While Elizabeth has little experience in the romance department, she advises Christina as best she can, and the two strike up a close friendship through their correspondence, encouraging each other, comforting and helping each other, without ever meeting face to face.
As the book progresses, it becomes clear that all is not well with Celia on her circus adventure. Elizabeth, with the the help of a boy she's been running with, goes to rescue Celia, but their friendship isn't the same anymore, for a number of reasons, and Elizabeth really struggles to come to terms with this. When she and Christina finally meet, it's under fairly dramatic circumstances, where several story line threads have come to a head.
This is a really difficult review to write, because when trying to describe the plot of the book, not that much seems to happen, but it's an absolutely delightful novel, made more interesting because of the epistolary device. All the characters are incredibly well fleshed out, even the supporting characters like Elizabeth's parents, or Christina's boyfriend Derek, and the two main characters are both wonderful girls, who you'd be lucky to have as friends in real life. There are also several unexpected twists in the narrative (which while a bit dramatic, nonetheless seem plausible), the first being the reveal that Celia's run off to join a circus.
I absolutely loved this book, probably not helped by the fact that I got to know my best friend Lydia through old timey correspondence (back in the days when we didn't really have regular access to Internet and e-mails), and the entire book made me miss the joy of writing letters. I'm just not very good at writing about books I feel really strongly about (I never seem to get across exactly what's so great about them), but take my word for it, this book is a complete delight, and I will try to get as many people as possible to read it.