EnthusiasmI thoroughly enjoyed Enthusiasm, the story of Julie and her best friend Ashleigh and their sophomore year of high school. Ashleigh moves from obsessive craze to obsessive craze, and for most of the novel she’s obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. It’s obvious that the author also loves Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and other staples of English majors everywhere. And as an English major, I found myself wrapped up in the story—it would have very much appealed to 15 year old me and been one of my favorites.

The tone of the narration starts out very Austen-esque, although that fades a bit once the story really gets going. The prose stays clever, though, making me smile and occasionally giggle out loud.

Like a good Austen novel, it’s a story of crushes and sister-like friendship and misunderstandings and family issues that are often annoying and occasionally embarrassing. There’s matchmaking and unsuitable suitors and class differences. And yet it’s all packaged in a story that modern readers will easily identify with.

I also appreciated all the breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout for the attentive reader. Sometimes this means Julie comes across as a bit clueless, but overall I appreciated not being beaten over the head with the hints.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid


Julie’s parents are divorced and her father has married Amy, the Irresistible Accountant, who played a role in ending the marriage of Julie’s parents. Julie doesn’t particularly get along with her and really doesn’t get along with her family. Amy is a nuanced character—she does try to get along with Julie, and she’s been dealing with numerous miscarriages, which are hard on her. But she doesn’t bother to truly understand Julie and she says some not very nice things about Julie’s mother. You can see why Julie doesn’t get along with her, and it feels real—Amy isn’t a monster and Julie isn’t being unreasonable.

Julie’s mother is a bit of a flighty artist who runs a small knick-knack, antique shop type thing out of their house. Money is tight and Julie’s mom is doing her best to keep things together. She’s a minor but sympathetic character. She and Julie seem to get along pretty well, although Julie doesn’t really feel like she can confide in her mom about a lot of things.

Samantha and Zach are siblings. They’re mostly minor characters (Sam is the wise, insightful one who helps Julie out) but their relationship is fun—they tease each other, but obviously get along pretty well.

Ashleigh’s parents are a bit indulgent. They’re supportive of their daughter’s quickly changing obsessions. It seems like a nice family, although we don’t see much of it.

The parents in general are kind of clueless. They have no idea that Julie and Ashleigh use the tree between their houses to get into each other’s rooms. The girls don’t think much of telling somewhat minor lies when the truth would be too hard to explain (like, they neglect to tell their parents they’re going to crash a dance at the local prep school).

Kissing, Sex, and Growing Up

Julie is depressed about hitting her 16th birthday without having been kissed. She’s even more worried that her first kiss will end up being with Seth—a boy who has a crush on her but whose affections she doesn’t return. Zach offers to kiss her, mostly so she’ll know what to expect and can stop obsessing about it. She takes him up on it—it’s awkward at first, but then nice, and then Sam hits him with something for molesting her younger friend. The kiss explicitly means nothing—Zach has a girlfriend and feels this isn’t cheating on her, and Julie is clear that she likes Zach but she doesn’t Like Zach. She wonders why there’s anything wrong with kissing someone you don’t Like—it was fun, and she’d do it again, given the chance.

There are a few more kisses, and some are more than fade to black. However, it’s not terribly explicit, although there’s some discussion about how it feels (really good!).

Parr, who Julie has a huge crush on, ends up spending the night in her bed through innocent machinations of the plot. They don’t do anything, although in his sleep he puts an arm around her. Her mother doesn’t know he’s there, thanks to that big and very climbable tree outside her window.

Chris is a predator. He never actually manages to do much of anything, but that’s not through lack of trying. People rally around, making sure they barge into rooms to rescue any girl that Chris has trapped.

It’s pretty clear that Amy and Julie’s dad were having an affair. In fact, we find out she was pregnant but miscarried during the time when Julie’s parents were in marriage counseling. At one point, Amy hints to Julie that trying to get pregnant is fun.

Julie’s dad and Amy sit her down for the Birth Control Talk. It’s Julie’s 4th such talk. It turns out that after the first talk, Julie’s mom put a box of “you’d-better-not-need-them-but-just-in-case-you-do” condoms in the bathroom. Julie’s checked—her mom replaces them when they expire.

Yolanda gets grounded because her mom finds out she ordered sexy underwear over the internet.

Julie notices that Ashleigh, always bouncy, now also bounces. She’s a little jealous of this, as she merely jiggles a little. She’s noticed that boys seem to appreciate Ashleigh’s bouncing, although Ashleigh is fairly oblivious.


The word “ass” shows up a few times. The boys’ boarding school is called Forefield. It’s called all kinds of derisive nicknames, including Foreplay and Foreskin.


It’s never made a big deal about, but there’s a lot of diversity in the characters. There are differences of body type, yet they’re all beautiful (although of course the girls themselves have trouble seeing their own beauty). There are different skin tones and hair colors. Julie is Jewish and Ashleigh is Catholic. It’s all brought up naturally in the text, just subtly adding a realistic variety to the world Julie lives in.

Social Status

There are some snide remarks from girls in a bathroom, but it isn’t too bad. Like many high schoolers, Julie is well aware of the social structure and her place within it. Her friend Sam gives her some insurance. Ashleigh is a liability, but funny and enthusiastic enough that it kind of rolls off her.

The boys at Forefield are quite well off. Ned is an exception—he’s there on a music scholarship. He seems to be well accepted, though.

Ashleigh’s family is pretty well off, but Ashleigh is conscious of not rubbing it in Julie’s face. Julie’s mom struggles—they keep the house quite cold because it’s expensive to heat it. Julie’s dad is pretty well off, but Julie hesitates to ask him for anything because it will look like her mom can’t take care of her. Sam gives Julie some insight into how to play this situation to her advantage. Julie’s dad and Amy seem quite conscious of appearances.


Friendship—platonic and romantic—is at the core of this book.

Julie and Ashleigh are best friends and will stand with each other through anything. Julie tries to mitigate the worst damage to her social reputation because of how far Ashleigh goes with her obsessions, but she never abandons her.

Sam is like a mentor to Julie, helping her out and providing a voice of reason. Her older brother, Zach, is also a good friend, looking out for the younger girls like they’re all his younger sisters—his tactics may occasionally be questionable, but his intentions are good.

Parr and Ned are also good friends, looking out for each other and spending vacations together. Friendship isn’t only for girls.

Of course Julie and Ashleigh have boyfriends by the end of the book—regardless of the crushes, they end up with boys they are friends with, who have interests in common with them. And while there are some struggles moving into this next phase of their lives, their friendship is always a priority and it ends up stronger.


This is a sweet, romantic story for people who did or aspire to major in British lit. Due to some of the themes, it’s best for mature tweens—you’ll need to decide if your tween is ready for it. It’s not explicit or shocking—but if they’re still a little freaked out by “kissing books” and being reminded that sex exists, they probably won’t fully appreciate this yet.

It’s a fantastic book for teens who are getting a bit tired of dystopias and apocalypses. Nothing horrible happens, but it’s definitely not a book for 8 year olds, either. Adults may enjoy it (I did) but it’s squarely aimed at a young to mid-teen audience.


Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman
Published in 2006 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Read a copy borrowed from Booksfree

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