A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity
by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
(St. Martin’s, $21.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-33326-9
Kathleen Gilles Seidel is known for writing thoughtful, intelligent romance novels that are released far too infrequently for her many fans.  A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity, Seidel’s first hardcover, finds her venturing into the Mom-Lit genre with mixed results.  Her attention to the nuanced details of relationships enables her to present a plot that will affect any mother who has ever raised a daughter.  But she provides more questions than answers, and takes the easy way out to resolve her characters’ complicated problems. 

 Lydia Meadows is surprised to realize that her daughter Erin and her three best friends are considered popular as they begin 6th grade at their exclusive Washington DC private school.  Although this is a new experience for Lydia, who was more of a smart girl on the outside during her own adolescence, she can’t help feeling a little smug.  After all, she reassures herself, Erin may be a popular girl but she isn’t mean.  Besides, the mothers of the other three popular girls are Lydia’s own best friends, and Lydia knows she can rely on them to make sure the girls all behave themselves.   

But into the mix comes Mary Paige Caudwell and her daughter Faith, who desperately wants to be popular and isn’t above using manipulation and exclusion to achieve her goal.  Suddenly the phone isn’t ringing anymore for Erin, and she’s not invited to the other girls’ sleepover parties.  Even worse, Lydia’s best friends, the alleged rational adults in the situation, aren’t as supportive of Lydia and Erin as she assumed they would be.  Before the school year is over, Lydia will have to determine how much she can and should intervene in her daughter’s social life, which leads her to re-examine her own choices about marriage, career and family.  Ultimately she realizes that she has to make some tough, selfless choices for Erin’s benefit.  

There is no pain like seeing your child unhappy.  As the mother of a teenaged daughter, I found myself nodding in recognition as Lydia vainly struggles to set some boundaries between Erin’s life and her own.  Seidel acutely portrays the middle-class 21st century parental angst of wanting to be more emotionally involved in our children’s lives than our own parents were – but not knowing how to extricate ourselves when it becomes inappropriate.  The “most uncommon degree of popularity” applies not only to Erin, but to Lydia herself and her attorney husband Jamie, both of whom struggle with their own need for validation in personal and professional relationships.  It’s apparent that popularity issues don’t disappear after high school; they just become more subtle.   

You’d have to be made of sterner stuff than I am to not be affected by Lydia’s dismay when Erin, obviously distraught about being excluded by Faith and her three former best friends, refuses to share any of her concerns with her mother.  Yet I wish Seidel had provided Erin with a little more of a personality than the standard petulant adolescent.  She never came alive for me, perhaps because Lydia’s own strong first-person narrative leaves little room for other characters to flourish.   

Seidel poses some difficult questions about adolescent popularity, but she provides an overly dramatic and disappointing resolution that solves Erin’s problems in an unrealistic manner.  Instead of making the crisis artificially disappear, I would have preferred to see Lydia and Erin forced to negotiate new relationships and social groups.  The introduction of several subplots, including Lydia’s troubled relationship with Jamie and a scandal at Erin’s school, needlessly distract from the main dilemma.   

In the novel’s first chapter, Lydia reminiscences about a brief interaction that made her realize she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother.  The scene is described with an amazing combination of insight, humor and poignancy.  This is Seidel at her best, a perceptive observer of human foibles and behavior.  I wish the entire book had enchanted me as much as the first 15 pages, but I give Seidel credit for presenting the problem with such a keen eye.  An Uncommon Degree of Popularity may be painful to read for those who can identify with it the most, but it’s also liberating to realize the universality of these agonizing popularity issues.   

--Susan Scribner

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