I found it thrilling to read a book in which the girl was the oversexed pervert and the boy was completely uninitiated in the ways of the hormonal world. In my mind, Penelope wasn’t so much “dirty” as she was a replica of my seventeen-year-old self. I thought about sex a lot in high school (Who am I kidding? I still think about sex a lot). And I remember the social stigmatization that surrounded girls who didn’t hide their erotic urges behind an aura of false innocence.
Luckily, my slutaceousness was curtailed by the fact that, for most of high school, I had a boyfriend. He was older and didn’t go to school with me, which took our relationship outside the sphere of Mean Girl scrutiny. Also, since I was myself a “Mean Girl,” no one was gonna criticize me – to my face – for what went on between my legs.
In The Nerdy and the Dirty, Penelope dealt with the internalized slut-shaming that so many high school girls deal with. And, while I wasn’t personally berated by any external forces for what (or who) I chose to do, I did internalize the belief that seems to be so prevalent among teenage girls – the sense that their bodies are a problem, that their desires should be squelched.
And then there’s Benedict. He reminded me of The Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper – smart about academics, but stupid about relationships. Benedict bulldozed over feelings with a level of insensitivity known only to the somewhat Aspergeric. In Benedict’s case, his complete lack of social skills was further compounded by his unempathetic upbringing. Benedict’s father was a self-defined “perfect person,” and the teenage boy tried to emulate his unfeeling father, to the detriment of himself, his peers and his other familial relationships.
Spoiler alert: I’m about to give away the book’s ending, so, if you plan to read it (which I highly suggest), step away from this blog post, get yourself a copy of The Nerdy and the Dirty, and come back after you’ve had a chance to bask in its brilliance. If you opt not to read it, then I can only conclude that you’re a real Paul (a reference that’ll only make sense to those who read this B.T. Gottfred masterpiece).
Anyway, it’s no surprise that Benedict and Penelope fall for each other. I could’ve predicted that just a few pages into the novel. But what was a surprise (to me, anyway) was how, by embracing each other’s nerdy and dirtiness, both characters were able to become more authentic versions of themselves. And their happily-ever-after came not as a result of assimilation, but in the moment they made the decision to remain radical and unapologetic outcasts.
I have no literary equivalent of Siskel & Ebert’s widely-recognizable two thumbs up, but I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s ever felt a little nerdy or a little dirty – which, let’s face it, is all of us.