There’s a general rule in Young Adult fiction that applies often enough to stick: if a story is about a boy with deep-seated character flaws, the characters around must adapt to accommodate him; if it is about a similar girl, she will have to undergo some growth and change so that the people in her life don’t give up on her forever. Hot Dog Girl, possibly one of the best cover and title combos on the YA market this year, definitely falls into this mould.
Elouise May Parker is a piece of work, and no one in her book understands her cockamamie scheme.
That great American rite of passage, the Summer break, is on. Elouise “Lou” Parker is set to make it her best ever, until she finds out that Magic Castle Playland, where she plays the dancing hot dog, is set to close after this season. While she tries to figure out how to keep the park alive, she sets her sights on her crush, Diving Pirate Nick. Unfortunately for Lou, Nick is already in a relationship with the park’s Princess, and Lou’s best friend Seeley doesn’t approve of Lou’s scheming.
You may think that Lou is wrong to want to steal someone else’s boyfriend, and you’d be right. But her means of doing so is so wrongheaded and outlandish that you wouldn’t conceive of it outside of an ancient wacky sitcom. Lou capitalises on her bisexual reputation to pretend to date her lesbian friend Seeley to get herself closer to Nick, somehow. Every time someone in the book suggests that her plan makes no sense, she concedes that it does not, but makes no attempt to course correct.
Young Adult novels come in many flavours, but they tend to adhere to certain flavour profiles. It is important that teens can see that their low self-esteem isn’t unique, but there is only so much self-loathing a reader can take before it affects them. Elouise May Parker needs validation, and it takes a lot of drilling for anyone to get through to her. There’s a reason that Becky Albertalli provides the pull quote: she’s pulled this trick at least twice before, but in far more extreme ways. Lou never gives herself time away from the poison of her mind. Most people have an outlet — including Seeley — but Lou does not.
What makes any of this acceptable is that no one in the book is willing to put up with Lou’s shenanigans, and that there are tangible consequences for each mistake that she makes. She makes many mistakes in this novel’s scant 214 pages, and her friends have their limits. She is never exactly a pariah, but ultimately her character arc is one of redemption: after pushing everyone to breaking point, Lou acknowledges that she does have to fix things, and that nothing is anyone else’s fault.
Hot Dog Girl could have benefitted from more attention being lavished on Magic Castle Playland, because sometimes the settings of YA novels don’t get their due. A sort of rinky dink but locally loved amusement park that offers Summer employment to a hot dog is fascinating, but very few logistics are entered into. Jennifer Dugan doesn’t really describe what a “Diving Pirate” show is, except to say that swimmers dive into a body of water (a pool? A tank? We will never know) dressed as pirates. The most enticing visual that a reader of Hot Dog Girl will ever see is the cover (and, it bears repeating, it is a spectacular cover). We get a taste of Lou’s world, but a deeper dive into the mechanics would have been that much more satisfying.
Hot Dog Girl is a palate cleanser of a novel, the sort of breezy tome that you read between heavier works (for example, American Psycho). If you’re a fast reader, you can paper over the cracks that show up like clockwork in its rigid three act structure, but if you need to take it in instalments, it may grind you down.