I was roughly 10 years old when I bought On the Bright Side, I Am Now the Girlfriend of A Sex God by British author Louise Rennison, the sequel to her cult-classic debut, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging. (The word “thong” had only recently entered my lexicon, courtesy of one-hit-wonder Sisqo.) It was eye-catching on a beige bookshelf in a Los Angeles Borders, with a bright magenta cover featuring an illustration of a girl in a tartan mini skirt, knee socks, and platform loafers, knees crossed in a flirtatious stance as she stands across from a man in blue jeans and boots. It might as well have been a pin-up, and the fact that the word “sex” scrawled across the cover in massive yellow lettering did little to quench the feeling that holding this young adult novel was a privilege, an honor. My hands were still callused by playground monkey bars, my nails bitten—I was probably wearing Limited Too—but I never felt more grown than I did at that moment.
My parents were never overprotective, but I was still scared to show them the book’s title. Still, I carried it around the school just to show off. Of course, people asked if they could borrow it; who was I to give up that kind of schoolyard clout? In Sex God, the very dramatic protagonist Georgia Nicolson revels over her crush from the first book becoming her boyfriend, but soon discovers that nabbing the guy doesn’t always mean smooth sailing. Georgia oscillated wildly between haplessness and joyousness, not unlike a cheap mood ring from Claire’s. But she sold the drama well, and even when she was overreacting you couldn’t help but be on her side.
Georgia was one of the last normie girls of my YA years—the average teen girl whose day-to-day oscillated between joy, despair, and abject boredom, peppered with boy drama and friendship squabbles throughout. She wasn’t that much different than Mia Thermopolis of The Princess Diaries series, which came out around the same time in 2000. Despite finding out she is the princess of a fictional European country, Mia seemed to spend as much time griping about her flat chest and big feet as her reluctant ascent to the throne. But by the mid to late 2000s, normie girls seemed decidedly out of fashion, pushed out by YA protagonists like Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen, who were embroiled in fantastical and dystopian realities far removed from anxiety spirals over schoolyard crushes. As Rennison was publishing installments in the series, the YA genre was increasingly saturated by stories about girls who were sad and rich, girls who wanted to fuck (or, worse, become) vampires, or girls who were fighting for their lives in dystopia. Georgia, on the other hand, was aggressively normal. She wasn’t a huge fan of school, she wasn’t a queen bee, and while readers can assume she was pretty enough, there’s never any indication that she’s anything to call home about. This is a girl who, within the first several pages of the first book, accidentally shaves off her eyebrow.
But Georgia’s adventures were real page-turners, without all the werewolves and tyrannical governments. Because sometimes you just wanted to read another girl’s diary about cute boys and clueless parents.
The premise of Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, published in 1999, was simple: Georgia Nicolson is a 14-year-old girl living in England who undergoes the trials and tribulations of coming-of-age. The story is told via Georgia’s diary entries, where she recounts conversations with her goofy group of friends and complains about her family, the woes of school and its resident mean girls, the antics of her insane pet cat Angus, and—most importantly—boys. Georgia was like my cooler, British older sister, introducing me into the world of teendom through tales of high school tedium, gigs, and “Snogging scales”: “(1) holding hands; (2) arm around; (3) good-night kiss; (4) kiss lasting over three minutes without a breath; (5) open mouth kissing; (6) tongues; (7) upper body fondling—outdoors; (8) upper body fondling—indoors (in bed); (9) below waist activity; and (10) the full monty.”
She even offered a handy glossary of Briticisism and Georgiaisms at the end of every book in the series. Boyzone was “Irish boy band, all very good-looking in a bland way”; a prat is “a gormless oik. You make a prat of yourself by mistakenly putting both legs down one knicker leg or by playing air guitar at pop concerts.” Georgia was an easy narrator to relate to. Take, for example, her brazen approach to hair removal. “Found the tweezers eventually,” Georgia writes at 2:00 p.m. on August 27. “Why Mum would think I wouldn’t find them in Dad’s tie drawer I really don’t know.” This is followed by an update at 2:30 p.m., declaring, “I can’t bear this. I’ve only taken about five hairs out and my eyes are swollen to twice their normal size.”
You can imagine what follows:
[Dad’s razor is] sharper than I thought. It’s taken off a lot of hair just on one stroke. I’ll have to even up the other one.
Bugger it. It looks all right, I think, but I look very surprised in one eye. I’ll have to even up the other one now.
Georgia’s mother runs into her shortly after and nearly drops her toddler in shock, yelling, “What in the name of God have you done to yourself, you stupid girl?” By 10 p.m. that night, Georgia writes, “Maybe they’ll grow back overnight. How long does it take for eyebrows to grow?” The next evening, Georgia notes that her 3-year-old sister is the “only nice person” about the whole eyebrow ordeal: “She was stroking where my eyebrows used to be and then she went off and brought me a lump of cheese,” Georgia writes. “Great. I have become ratwoman.”
Georgia lacked self-awareness and was often petulant, but she had a sense of humor. She was dealing with very human-scale problems, the things that nevertheless seem life-altering—or, more accurately, life-ruining—as a teen, when it feels like everything is on the line and matters. The only thing that made Georgia feel far cooler than the average teen was the most vital theme of the series: Georgia’s love life.
Through the series, Georgia has three primary suitors; her on-again-off-again boyfriend Robbie who is the lead singer and guitarist in a local band, an Italian-American stallion named Masimo, and Dave the Laugh, one of Georgia’s closest friends, with whom she ends up at series’ end. Georgia can moan about her massive nose or her bewilderment with the opposite sex as much as she wants, but the girl nabbed three desirable men in 10 books; a hot musician, a handsome dude with a sexy accent, and the hilarious best dude friend (who we can also assume is at least a little cute). Georgia was far from hapless, but even this didn’t render her into an unsympathetic narrator. She was still a girl whose false eyelashes—or, as Georgia calls them, “boy entrancers”—were chewed on by one of her cats at the end of the appropriately titled Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers. If Georgia’s luck seemed unbelievable, it helped that Georgia was often just as surprised as we were.
Not everything about the series has aged well. There are occasional gags about transvestites—Georgia jokingly suggests her father might be one a few times—and while they aren’t cruel, there are cracks about lesbianism that could ruffle some feathers. But Georgia’s musings about the mundanity of life, interspersed with juicy life updates, still hold charm. It’s like reading an old LiveJournal entry and marveling at the adversities that seem so life or death as a teen.
Georgia’s stakes were low and deeply familiar. If you wanted drama and angst and casual drug use, this wasn’t the series for that; Gossip Girl is right over there, on the other side of the YA section, full of penthouses, benign neglect, and Ivy League aspirations. There was no magic, no vampires. This was just a teen girl going through typical teen girlhood, sneering at and revering Cosmo advice columns like the rest of us.
Back in 2000, the New York Times described Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging as “a little raunchy and quite funny,” suggesting that readers regard Georgia as “two modern British diarists, Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, into a single 14-year-old.” In 2003, the Washington Post said that Georgia spends the series chronicling her own “Bridget Jonesian crises.” Elizabeth Bewley, then an assistant editor at St. Martin’s Press, said that the Georgia books reflect the fact that “A lot of young-adult fiction is starting to be packaged like chick lit.”
But the Post piece pondered whether the chick-lit reign was in fact coming to an end. The genre was still garnering big numbers in the early 2000s, and perhaps that was reflected in the popularity of the Georgia Nicolson series; Angus Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging became a bestseller and was translated into more than 30 languages. But as the decade progressed, normie girls like Georgia were out, and girls with larger-than-life problems were decidedly in. Still, my interest in these new protagonists was limited; maybe I was finally aging out of YA, or maybe I just had a hard time becoming invested in this new breed of humorless leads.
When Rennison died in 2016, it felt like a tragedy that could only be shared with a select few. While her sudden death at the age of 64 prompted short obituaries in The Guardian and The New York Times and some hundreds of tweets, she wasn’t a top trending topic. I couldn’t help but feel like this woman whose series was so entwined with my coming of age, my introduction to young adulthood, was cheated. But maybe that’s because even 17 years after the Georgia series debuted, it still felt like a secret stateside.
According to the BBC, Rennison sold 2.6 million physical copies of her books in the UK by the time she died, a figure dwarfed by the YA giants of the 2000s. In 2008, the film Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging—based on the first and second books in the series—hit theaters in the UK and aired in the US on Nickelodeon, the network’s first PG-13 film. The movie starred Georgia Groome as Georgia and up-and-coming Aaron Taylor Johnson as Robbie. But it was one and done, no sequels, no major franchise money.
The last book of the series, Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me?, came out in 2009, when I was a freshman in college. Reading it in my dorm room bunk felt like reacquainting with an old friend for the last time, but by that time I felt alone in my adventures with Georgia. Only a few friends of mine by that time were even familiar enough with the series to talk about it, and this was no Harry Potter; no one was lining up to buy this book at midnight. It came and went with little fanfare.
I resent the fact that Georgia wasn’t the most popular girl on the YA block, but I have nothing but fondness for Georgia’s place in my formative years. As I became a teen with a life that seemed full of endless drama of my own, Georgia was a constant companion, sharing cringe-worthy tales of awful kisses and maddening mean girls. I didn’t need a YA protagonist to look up to or to be envious of, I just wanted one who was fun, gave me a good laugh, and fed my not-so-mild Anglophilia. Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson provided just that and then some. Georgia might not have taught me how to overcome a dictatorship or fight with a bow and arrow, but she did teach me what a “tosser” is.
That has to count for something.