Mel has a part-time job at the local coffee place.
Mel will be starting his junior year at the local public high school.
Doesn’t sound too scary, right? Except that Dannie Pepper is DANNIE PEPPER. The mega-millionare, the head of Peppers & Peaches, Inc., the genius behind the Peach Haven chain of restaurants , and Peach Ware clothes for women, and the Peaches Calendar, and Dannie lives at The Peach Palace, and in addition to being Portland’s number one playboy Dannie is also the most over-protective dad in the world.
No, really. Mel been home-schooled with private tutors his entire life; Dannie has been careful to keep Mel’s photo out of magazines. Even thought Dannie and Mel’s mother, Lorna (Perfect Peach of 1993) split up years ago, her house is on Dannie’s Peach Palace grounds, a walled & gated compound — all to protect Mel’s privacy so he can be a regular kid.
A regular kid who has never been to school.
Mel’s about to change that. He has a new job, he has a new school, he has a new name — Mike Ferguson — so that no one will realize he’s “that” Mel Pepper.
Project: Boy Next Door has begun. How will it end?
The Good: I loved Mel (aka Mike). I’m actually amazed at how much I liked him, considering what a privileged teen he is. In many ways, Mel has a fantasy life. His parents are separated, but have such a joint concern for Mel’s well being that they are very mature about it. They live in different houses, but close enough to each others that Mel isn’t inconvenienced. At his dad’s house (and more on that below), there is a staff that is friendly and loving to Mel and, well, take care of his every wish: food? The head chef is right on top of that with his favorites. Clothes? There’s a stylist who supplies all the right stuff. And then there are the cars. The bowling alley. The pool. The — you get the picture. If Mel wants it, it’s there.
Yet, Mel isn’t a brat, to put it bluntly. Probably because his mother’s home, his primary residence, is smaller and without that staff. Probably because both parents take him to task the moment he shows any signs of being a brat. And probably because of his father’s successful campaign to keep Mel’s life private, so that he has never been treated like a celebrity. And, probably, because Dannie’s money and connections haven’t bought Mel the one thing he really wants, and Mel is willing to do anything to get that: a typical, normal, teen experience. Going to high school, making friends, hanging out, having a job. Mel isn’t totally isolated. He has two friends: Ike (whose parents, like Mel’s, are rich); and Dinah, whose parents travel the world for their jobs so her friendship is mainly via the emails she and Mel send each other. But, really, two friends?
Dannie isn’t going to stop wanting to protect his son. For example, that job? It disappears. Mel is a bit suspicious, but ends up accepting his father’s offer to work at one of the Peach Haven restaurants. Mel insists on using “Mike Ferguson” as his name and wants (and gets) no special treatment. Because the activities of one restaurant are so far removed from his father’s position of running the Pepper & Peaches conglomerate, it also means that Mel is on his own at the restaurant, getting that taste of independence he craves.
School is something no one can “make easier” for Mel; and Mel has deliberately chosen a public school so that he can disappear into his Mike persona, rather than go to his friend Ike’s small, private school. Mel starting school as Mike: hysterical. Part of Mel’s personality is to step back and over-analyze things. Which sometimes is smart, like when he realizes that his car is so much nicer than any other car in the student parking lot and that he has to get something different to drive or he’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Sometimes it’s funny, like when he finds himself dating a girl and having no idea how to nicely break up with her. And sometimes it doesn’t kick in soon enough, such as when he greats his teacher with a firm handshake, just the way he’s been taught to do by his parents. Except how often does the new kid shake hands with his teacher on the first day of school?
A bit about Dannie and Lorna. Dannie and his lifestyle is a little bit Hugh Hefner, a little bit Joe Francis, but not quite so sexed up. Yes, there are “Perfect Peaches” (the models for the company’s calendar or clothing line) who hang around the Peach Palace; yes, there is his father’s string of girlfriends even though Dannie and Lorna aren’t technically divorced; yes, there was a reality TV show. Lorna herself was a “Perfect Peach;” as Mel explains, she was one of the twelve or so African American Perfect Peaches. And that is another thing: as you can tell from the cover, this book features a teenage boy of color. One who happens to be rich and privileged. I love the cover; and I love the way Madigan incorporates diversity into Project: Boy Next Door.
One of Mel’s first friends is Blake, and here is something I have to confess: I didn’t realize until farther into the book that it was Blake from Flash Burnout. I KNOW. So all of your Flash Burnout fans will want to read this to see what Blake and his friends are up to. At the same time, I can testify to the fact that you don’t have to read Flash Burnout to read and love Project: Boy Next Door.
Does Mel get away with being Mike? Someone may have figured it out; some pranks are being pulled on Mel (his car battery gets stolen on the first day of school) and Mel suspects its someone who knows his real identity. Mel trying to protect his real name, while at the same time wanting to connect and make friends based on who he really is not what he is, is something he struggles with throughout the book. Can you make friends and be a friend if you can’t be honest with them? Those friends include both his friends at school, but also a girl he meets at work, T.
While on it’s surface Project: Boy Next Door is about a rich, lonely teen trying to be the “boy next door,” it’s more than that. If that was all it was, if that was all Mel was, I would have been bored and cranky with Mel. Instead, I was drawn in, rooted for him, cheered him on, liked him. At first I thought, oh, it’s just because Mel isn’t spoiled, but then I realized, no — it’s because Project: Boy Next Door is about a teenager asserting his independence and growing up. It’s a universal story, wanting to make one’s own choices, and at the same time realizing that sometimes (like when your car battery is stolen) it’s OK to call home for help and not to have to do it all on your own. Or realizing when you have somehow gotten yourself a girlfriend without meaning to, you’re on your own in figuring out how to fix it. And, as Mel realizes when he makes friends with someone who has much, much less than what Mel has (in terms of both physical objects and a loving family), it’s also about knowing the right way and the wrong way to offer help.
As I mentioned in the post about L.K. Madigan earlier this week, Project: Boy Next Door was written before Madigan died. This meant that the editor couldn’t work with Madigan in preparing this for publication. Madigan’s voice, her humor, her touch with characters, her sympathy, shine through this book. With this knowledge of the path to publication, can I see a couple of areas where, I think, an editor and Madigan would have worked together to make something good even better? Yes; I think a couple of supporting characters would have been more filled out. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Project: Boy Next Door is a terrific book. Any fan of her other books, especially Flash Burnout, will want to read this; and those who discover Madigan through this book will realize, like the rest of us, the terrible loss of her early death.