Meg Cabot’s 2007 young adult novel, Pants on Fire, follows a teenage girl whose years of lying, cheating, and social climbing all come crashing down on her when a friend she betrayed several years ago comes back into town, threatening to ruin her reputation. While the official plot summary promises a plot twist filled look into karma and how even the smallest lies can cause the biggest disasters, I found the story lacking. It is a flat and nearly plotless book that follows the inner monologue of a girl who has a personality slimier than the innards of the quahog clams she hates.
Set in the fictional town of Eastport, Connecticut, the story follows Katie Ellison, a 17-year-old girl who’s popular, dating the hottest football player in school, and naturally beautiful. Katie’s life is perfect. Katie is perfect. Except for the fact her perfection was obtained through betrayal.
In the eighth grade, she allowed her best friend, Tommy Sullivan, to get run out of their football-obsessed town after he exposed the high school football players for cheating on the SAT. Worried about her own reputation and ruining her chances of getting with Seth Turner, Katie allowed Tommy to get ruthlessly bullied and even joined in by helping vandalize the local middle school with graffiti that reads “TOMMY SULLIVAN IS A FREAK.”
Several years later, Katie is a rising high school senior serving clams at the Gull ‘n Gulp and has developed a bad habit of lying. While some of her lies are small and unimportant, such as the fact that she hates the taste of the very clams she serves, some of her lies are much more malicious. During work, she spends some time with Seth, who she finds boring after four years of dating, but during her lunch break, she cheats with classmate and local thespian Eric Fluteley.
Katie also regularly lies about her pride in her hometown, which she desperately wants to leave. But when her ticket out of Eastport, a high end camera she wants to pursue photography with, is too expensive for her to afford, she decides to join the annual Quahog Princess pageant, even if she finds the pageant process antiquated and sexist. Katie’s summer takes an unexpected turn when the infamous Tommy Sullivan mysteriously comes back into town, and he is no longer dopey and skinny; he is tall, muscular, confident, and possibly out for revenge.
This could have been an interesting read, but sadly this is a flop in the Meg Cabot lineup. Cabot, most popular for her Princess Diaries series, has a way of putting relatable characters in unrelatable situations and ensuring that the audience never becomes bored or feels distanced from the protagonist. Her second most popular book, Avalon High, follows a teenage girl who realizes that she is a descendant of King Arthur’s protector, The Lady of the Lake, and though the protagonist is a fantastical being, Cabot is able to make her still feel as though she is a regular teenage girl. So, if Meg Cabot was able to write a princess and a fairy-like being in a way that still resonates with teenage girls nearly twenty years later, why is it that in a story as grounded as Pants on Fire, Katie is so unempathetic?
Issue #1: Weak-willed protagonist
Katie Ellison is an incredibly weak-willed protagonist. It’s hard to believe that somebody so flighty, self-absorbed, and rude could build and maintain a life of false perfection. In writing, there is a trope known as the “antihero,” in which the author writes a morally gray protagonist and convinces the reader to sympathize with them in light of their wrongdoings. While Katie has all the markers of the classic antihero, she seems to be physically unable to control herself, unlike most antiheroes who actively choose to be morally gray.
Numerous times in the book, she states that she feels awful for cheating on Seth with Eric, but when she and Tommy become friends again and he advises that she start telling the truth a bit more, she thanks him by kissing him. Of course, she spends several pages in a panic worried about what will be the consequence of this. However, any promise she makes to herself to stop impulsively kissing boys or to ship herself off to an Episcopalian convent go out the window just three chapters later when she kisses Tommy again in a public park. There is a difference between having impulsive tendencies and living life on autopilot, and Katie goes for the latter each and every time.
Issue #2: Juvenile perception of love
Another mark on Katie’s record is that she has a juvenile view of love. After Katie and Tommy kiss for the second time, Katie realizes that she no longer wants anything to do with Seth or Eric and only wants to kiss Tommy from now on. She decides this fact means that she is in love with Tommy. This is an incredibly simplistic understanding of love that deeply harms Katie’s character development while also preaching false ideals to young readers. This view may have worked at the beginning of the book when she wonders if she truly wants to be with Seth or Eric. However, by the end of the book, since she is still equating love to who she wants to kiss in that moment, it makes it plainly clear that Katie had little to no character development over the course of the story, making her journey not worth reading. The only notably good thing Katie does in the story was in the eighth grade when she prevented Seth from calling Tommy a homophobic slur. Anything good about Katie starts and ends with Tommy.
Issue #3 Flat hero
Likewise, the same way Katie’s positive traits stop and start with Tommy, Tommy’s personality stops and starts with Katie. His entire purpose in the story is to harbor a crush he had on Katie when they were children and to give her some sort of romantic stability. In chapter twenty-one, it’s revealed that Tommy actually witnessed the vandalism of the middle school, and that he saw Katie grab the spray can from Seth when she realized what he was going to write. Katie, understandably, fears that Tommy hates her for turning on him, but he says he thought it was “cool” that she made the message relatively tamer and he understands that she joined in because she was afraid of what could happen if she didn’t.
Because Tommy seems to have had no issue with what Katie had done, this strips him of any serious human emotion and character development. Most people would struggle to forgive their best friend for betraying them, but Tommy makes it seem as if his parents were more upset about the harassment than he was. If Tommy explained how he decided to forgive and forget, this would have made him a much stronger character and given him a motivation other than to win Katie’s heart.
Pants on Fire is not a book someone should read if they’re looking for a smart and introspective look into how the decisions we make and the lies we tell affect our lives. Everything we learn at the beginning of the book is still true by the end of the book, meaning there’s little to no character development for Katie, Tommy, or any of the other major characters. The plot just happens, and nobody is a better person at the end–character or reader.
Meg Cabot must have talent; she is one of the greats in the young adult genre, but whatever it was that gave her a spot in infamy is not evident here at all, so I’ll have to give this book two out of five stars. It did have a certain addictive quality to it because I finished the book in one day, but the flat characters and the lackluster plot ruined any fun that could have been had. Is this harsh? Maybe, but it’s the truth.