In my ongoing (and very easy) search for lighthearted British novels, I keep coming back to the funny and poignant diaries of Adrian Mole. Now I'm halfway through the double-volume The Adrian Mole Diaries, which means I just finished The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4. I read this book for the first time when a librarian suggested it to me in middle school, and years later picked up Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction on a table at the Strand in New York City (I've linked you to the wonderful Penguin Celebrations edition, part of a series reissued in 2008). Enamored by Sue Townsend's prose a second time, I decided to reread the entire series from the beginning. Adrian's first diary features a slightly different style from that in Weapons, in which he still writes in a diary as he approaches middle age. The dry wit and self-deprecation and humorous negativity remain constant. As a boy, however, his entries are choppier and more melodramatic. Townsend has brilliantly aged Adrian not only as a character, but also in the way he expresses himself.
Almost fourteen, Adrian faces adversity in the dual arenas of adolescent growing pains and a fragmenting family. He complains frequently, particularly about his parents, whose marriage is on the rocks and whose parenting I found questionable at the least, and also about a vicious bully at school and Pandora Braithwaite, the girl of a "higher social class" who won't return his affections. It's hard not to laugh at Adrian's suffering when his whining goes over the top. That's where the series finds its fantastic humor - while Adrian might not be coping with some things so well, they're the little things or those that seem huge at an age we all remember.
So I'm surprised when I just as quickly find myself feeling melancholy, too. Adrian's tone can't disguise the sadness of how his mother ignores him, or the misfortune of his father's unemployment, or the sweetness of the bond he forms with a shut-in whom he meets through a volunteer program at school. Lurking in the background, British politics, developments in the royal family and pop culture, and the integration of cultures on Adrian's cul-de-sac provide a social and historical context that render Adrian an apt chronicler of Thatcher-era England.
What struck me most, in revisiting an age I myself have buried in the back of my mind, was Sue Townsend's ability to draw out the most (in hindsight) naive and ridiculous and wonderful things we believe as young teenagers, when our lives and emotions can change drastically from day to day. I don't remember this time well. A personal tragedy at age 15 obliterated my innocent worldview so as to mostly destroy the memory of my seventh and eighth-grade years. Since then, I could only access it with the help of childhood friends.
That's changed now that I decided to go back in time with Mr. Mole. Adrian reminds me of the things that seemed life-altering and terrifyingly important to me - unrequited crushes, shifting lunch-table alliances, unpredictable friendships, math tests, competition for first-chair saxophone - before I faced mortality, catastrophic change, and loss. If you read any of these diaries, you'll find Adrian funny; and if he reminds you at all of yourself, he will be other things too.