The Nerdy and the Dirty by B. T. Gottfred. Henry Holt, 2016. 9781627798501. 304pp.
Sarah: So Pen is a girl who thinks she’s a freak because she thinks about sex. She thinks she’s the only girl in her high school who masturbates.
Gene: Which she does all the time.
S: All the time. She thinks. It’s not interfering with her life. Her family is Catholic, and have some very strong feelings about sexuality, and her mom is kind of crazy in a way that she’s not totally functioning…
Pen can’t let anyone know the kinds of things that go on in her head. Not just sex things but her thoughts, her opinions, she can’t tell anyone what’s in her head because then people wouldn’t want to be around her any more. And she’s relatively popular, she has a cute boyfriend with stubble (that’s very important to her), wears a leather jacket, and she just speaks in single syllables.
G: And they’re sexually active but her boyfriend feels very guilty about it.
S: Yes, yes! He swears he’s going to marry her every time they do it.
G: Pen’s mom loves him. And Pen isn’t very good at school but she’s smart and reads a lot. She has a very interesting internal life which she doesn’t let out, which includes opinions and thoughts about what she’s reading. Then the other character is…?
S: Benedict Maximus Pendleton! He has decided that this year he is going to get a girlfriend. He and his only friend Robert, also a huge nerd, are going to get girlfriends. Robert is obsessed with Pen. They were friends before she became cool, and he thinks she’s great.
G: Pen dresses all in black.
S: And motorcycle boots and leather jacket. And Benedict doesn’t think she’s very smart. He’s very aware of how smart he is in comparison to all his classmates. He knows people’s grades, and he is not very good at social situations (which eventually he figures out for himself). But there’s a situation where he and Robert are walking through the halls and one of Pen’s friends who as she describes her was really hot and bitchy and then gained a bunch of weight, and now she’s fat, hot and bitchy, and has giant boobs. She says something mean to them in the hallway, calls them Tin Man and Scarecrow. And Robert starts to cry and leaves. Benedict turns and walks right up to her and says I know you’re upset that you’re fat, but if you keep being mean like this after high school no one is going to want to be your friend. And she flips out. All her friends decide they’re going to beat the crap out of him, including Pen’s boyfriend. And Pen is smitten. She doesn’t know she’s smitten.
G: She’s smitten because he says exactly what’s in his head.
S: Yes, because he has no filter. He said what needed to be said and then walked away. And then later her boyfriend kicks the crap out of him in the hallway. She comes by and is the only one who tells him to knock it off, and rubs Benedict’s chest a little, because he’s had the wind knocked out of him. And the thing he notices and can’t get out of his head is how good Pen smells.
G: Pen and Benedict have to go to the principal’s office together.
S: And they cover for each other. They’re both surprised. Neither knows what it means. Except that later (laughing) Pen realizes she might be obsessed with him, when she looks at all his pictures on Facebook and jerks off.
G: He’s apparently really good looking. Benedict is one of these self actualized guys who takes care of himself but he’s so nerdy no one notices. And she’s so absent from herself that he never notices that she’s pretty.
S: But when it comes down to it, that’s not what ends up bringing them together. It’s the fact that they are both really themselves.
G: Right. Story-wise, what brings them together is Benedict’s dad is famous, he’s a famous pop psychology guy whose book sold 50 million copies.
S: And he’s a tremendous asshole to his entire family.
G: He lives in the basement and never talks to any of them.
S: Benedict believes his father is a genius, he believes everything his father decides is right for him…
G: And it becomes very clear that’s not the case. So Pen’s mom catches her in action and is very disturbed.
S: Completely loses it and sends her to a Catholic recovery center where she’s supposed to talk about her priorities in life. Pen quickly decides to tell them everything they want to hear. No one has pushback to her mother’s feelings about sexuality. She promises to focus on her schoolwork and being a good Catholic.
G: Then her mom takes her away to this camp.
S: Directly from the recovery center they go to the place the go on vacation every year, in the winter, to this resort in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin.
G: And it just happens to the same place that Benedict’s dad decides he’s taking the family. They end up there… at what point does Benedict ask his younger sister for help? He’s always discounted her. He starts to realize the fact that he doesn’t get girls and he wants his sister’s help on learning to act normal. And this is after Robert, his only friend, has dumped him, so he has no one.
S: He turns to her at the Cheesecake Factory and asks for her help, to give him lessons. She’s flabbergasted but absolutely willing to do it. And that was another relationship that I loved, they actually loved each other even though they drove one another crazy.
G: She’s waiting for him to love her back.
S: There’s a moment where one of her dad’s comments shattered her, but Benedict showed his love for her, and she’s always remembered that.
G: And his mom is fabulous too.
S: He just discounts her so much because his dad does.
G: Part of this book is his slow awakening to the fact that his mom and sister are awesome. It’s a huge part of what makes this excruciating and somewhat unbelievable romance believable, is the emotional realness of this.
S: Because when it comes down to it, it’s a goofy, over-accelerated love story but at the same time they’re at the right point in their lives to decide that the way things are is untenable and it’s time to change.
G: It’s such a beautiful horndog love story. It’s all so wonderfully awkward.
S: The warming hut! Because that’s the scene teens will show each other, this book is always going to fall open to the warming hut scene.