Jen Lancaster's YA Novel "The Gatekeepers" Is Her Most Powerful Book Yet — EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT
You probably know Jen Lancaster as the hilarious best-selling author of memoirs such as Bitter is the New Black, and novels such as Twisted Sisters — but now she's got a new project in the works: Jen Lancaster has a YA book coming out, and Bustle has an exclusive excerpt for you right here. Lancaster is famous for her sense of humor, so it's interesting to see that she's tackling such a serious topic in her latest novel: that of teenage suicide. The Gatekeepers was inspired by recent tragic events in the suburb where Lancaster lives, and will tell an inspiring story of the teenagers who band together to offer each other some much-needed support.
In Lake Forest, Illinois, where Lancaster lives, three teenagers committed suicide in the space of a few months by stepping in front of trains. As the community was left reeling from this tragedy, Lancaster felt very strongly that she "had to do something, to say something." Fiction has always been an incredibly powerful way to send a message of hopefulness, particularly to young people struggling with feelings they can't quite understand. Lancaster cited John Hughes' movies as fulfilling this role for her own generation, explaining that these movies "told us that he understood what we were going through, that our feelings were valid, and that we were not alone in our experiences. It’s my hope that this book will show readers that what they’re going through is real, and what they’re feeling is important.”
Keep reading for a sneak preview of this powerful new novel, due out October 10. Here we meet two of the central characters, Mallory and Simone.
YOU PROBABLY WISH you were me.
I don’t actually say this out loud. Not an appropriate topic for our campus tour, and also super bitchy, even though that’s not my intention. Still, I can tell by the way the new girl sizes me up that she believes I have it all, that I check off all the right boxes. How could she not when I’ve got:
- natural blond hair, super long and straight but not stringy, never stringy, check.
- a British SUV, check.
- a twenty-six-inch waist, check.
- a cute, popular, universally beloved boyfriend, check.
- a limitless future, double-freaking-check.
My Balenciaga backpack’s full of credit cards in my name, yet I’m not even legal to buy cigarettes. That is, if anyone smoked, because, no.
I wonder if this Simone person partakes, though? She seems super European with her bizarre felt clogs and layers of scarves. They LOVE smoking over there. When the Italian Club went to Venice last summer, I noticed every high school–aged kid puffing away, as though lung cancer weren’t even a thing.
At the time, my girlfriends were, like, “The Venetian boys are sooooo hot! We won’t tell if you cheat on Liam!” However, (a) I’m faithful, and (b) every single guy I met was five-foot-three. I was a head taller than all of them. Again, no.
Anyway, my wrist is stacked with Cartier Love bracelets, and not the weird, breakfast cereal–type jewelry this girl has piled on, like she’s wearing a bunch of Cheerios on a string or something. She seems the type to own four T-shirts that she washes in the sink at a youth hostel, whereas my walk-in closet’s the size of a studio apartment. Even clad in my team uniform—a North Shore first day tradition—I have better style.
If I had to describe myself/my life, I’d say I’m kind of a suburban version of Kendall Jenner, except I have two brothers and no sisters. Also, I’m not forced to spend holidays with Kanye West. Can you imagine how annoying that must be, enduring a festive meal while trapped at the table with him? Oh, those poor things! I’m sure he’s always all, “I’m the greatest artist who ever lived!” And poor Kendall is, like, “Bible, Yeezus, but I asked you to please pass the yams.”
Anyway, when this girl looks at me, she probably can’t see past the symmetrical face or enviable accessories, but there’s more to me than that. I’m not just the queen of last year’s Junior Prom and not just the girl the guys want to get with and girls want to be.
I also have a 3.96 GPA from the most competitive high school in the country.
Baccalaureate, baby. Beauty and brains? Yeah, I’m the full package.
Which is why she might secretly aspire to be me.
But if I could offer her a bit of advice?
It’s way easier to just be you.
“WE BREED EXCELLENCE here at North Shore High School.”
I nod instead of saying anything, because how do I even respond to a statement like that?
I also nodded when Vice Principal Torres said the same thing as he welcomed me to the school. He clasped my hand and nearly crushed it in a crippling shake. Then my guidance counselor, Mr. Gorton, went for the conversational trifecta. WTF? Are they all working from the same script?
And how does one breed excellence here, anyway?
In a lab? In a test tube? Or is it more like in a barn?
What does she even mean?
The she in this case is Mallory Goodman, the stick-thin girl in a field hockey uniform who interprets my silence as complicity. While I’m not naturally quiet, she’s been plowing over me like a conversational bulldozer, razing everything in its path.
Is it that I make her nervous?
No, impossible. She’s tall and trim and bloody perfect and I am none of those things. I’m small and arty and far more likely to pick up a sketchpad than a piece of sporting equipment. I can only catch cold and can only throw shade. (Really, not even great at that.)
Feels like every answer I’ve given her has been wrong, like when she asked where I live. Told her we’d bought our house from the Barat family. She gave me the oddest look, and that’s when she really launched into her monologue.
Mallory’s the president of the NSHS Novus Orsa Club (“Latin for new beginnings,” she explained) so she’s showing me the campus, even though I’d begged off an escort, explained I could make due because of my fine sense of direction. Last year, when my mum and dad were delayed getting to Art Week, I explored Berlin for two days on my own before they finally arrived and I didn’t know a lick of German. Got by on pointing, smiling, and Google Translator, although most people I met spoke brilliant English anyway.
However, Mr. Gorton insisted I have a guide, so here we are, Mallory and me…breeding excellence. Together.
I needed guidance only while dressing, apparently. Picked out my favorite tee and scarf and skirted leggings, figuring I couldn’t go wrong with such basics.
Every girl not in a team uniform is clad in small shorts or a f lippy dress with bare shoulders, tottering around on sandals with sky-scraping wedge heels. I’m overdressed and pale and out of place. If there were a book on how to blend in here, that’s what I could have used. I suddenly miss my hateful old school uniform.
Truth is, I’m overwhelmed.
This place is huge to the point of ridiculous, spread across twenty acres with a dozen outbuildings. Nothing prepared me for this. Yes, I’m a US citizen (technically, I hold dual passports), but my only experience with American high schools comes from this week’s binge watch of old episodes of Glee. Trust me, William McKinley bears zero resemblance. With all the French Renaissance–style red brick and white stone facings enveloping vast squares of tidy green lawns, NSHS looks a lot more like Lady Margaret Hall, a college at Oxford.
Mallory continues, pressing a hand against her chest like she’s pledging allegiance. Her identical gold bracelets slide down her narrow wrist and clank together musically. “In this school, and let’s be honest, in this town, being good isn’t sufficient.”
Suspect Mallory takes herself awfully seriously.
She goes on like this, but I’m distracted from her monologue when I spot my neighbor Owen Foley-Feinstein strolling across the quad. He looks like he’s listening to a jam band, grooving down the path despite not wearing any earbuds. Some people are just naturally f luid like that. He has a languid grace, all loose-limbed. Reminds me of the jungle cats we fed at that sanctuary in South Africa. He f lashes me a big grin and holds up a peace sign when I wave.
Owen and I met while I was out walking Warhol, our new rescue puppy. He lives on the corner of my new street. He thought my dog was awesome, laughing at the pup’s underbite, which I so adore. Warhol’s teeth cause his bottom lip to jut out in a way that perpetually makes me want to kiss his sweet face. Owen mentioned passing us the number to a good canine orthodontist and it took me a moment to understand he was joking. (Teeth are a very serious business in this country.)
As we chatted, Owen complimented my stack of bracelets, piled up and down my wrists in a profusion of beads and hammered silver and leather. He was impressed when he learned that I’d made them. I told him I fancied his dreadlocks and he seemed genuinely pleased. I get the feeling he doesn’t hear much positive feedback about them. (Suspect there’s little room for nonconformity at NSHS, what with the bred excellence and all.)
Seeing Owen reminds me I have a handful of Hindu prayer stones he might want. I drilled the holes too wide in these longish, tubular beads and now they don’t lie right when strung. But they’d be perfect to weave into his hair. I make a mental note to drop them off at his place sometime soon.
Mallory frowns as she follows my line of sight to Owen. She clears her throat and continues, “As I was saying, we’re the best in whatever we do. Always. Our parents expect nothing less.”
I try to digest this concept, and… Christ on a bike, that sounds exhausting.
Mallory’s words do make me think, though. What do my parents expect of me, I wonder? With their track record, I’d say they expect me to:
find beauty in unexpected places.
seek out what makes me happy.
experience the world with an open heart and mind.
That’s what they did at my age and it worked brilliantly for them. Hell, Mum didn’t even finish high school before she left New York, running off to Europe. People had been telling her she should be a model since she was nine years old—at seventeen, she went for it. For a ten-year period, you couldn’t open a magazine without seeing a million shots of Fiona Whitley Suri, known to the world simply as Fi.
Once she tired of being in front of the camera, she stepped behind it. While Dad made it into university in his native Northern England, he quickly realized he couldn’t sit still in a classroom and took off for the Big Smoke (London) before his second term. They like to tell me that if they hadn’t followed their hearts, they’d have never met and I wouldn’t be here today.
Looking at Mallory, I’d wager our parental units have trod different paths. For one, hers are probably legitimately married to each other and not just common-law. Suspect her dad did not become world-renowned by sculpting a fetus out of crystal meth, either. (Said piece is still on display at Tate Modern, if you’re so inclined.)
After Owen passes by, a boy built like a wall comes up behind Mallory, yanking her ponytail with a blindingly white, toothy grin on his face. He’s wearing a football jersey. She f lushes bright red, but I can’t tell if that’s from embarrassment or pleasure. She shoos him off without introducing me.
“Your boyfriend?” I ask.
“Oh, honey, no.” She wrinkles her nose, as though the idea of dating this boy is simply too distasteful. “That’s Braden, my brother’s friend.”
“Lucky you! I wish I had a brother with attractive friends. Total convenience, right?”
“Please. Braden’s practically family and hooking up with him would be creepy. Like, unimaginable.”
I persist, “He’s awfully cute if you fancy that massive, Channing Tatum sort of thing. You’ve really never considered—”
Mallory clears her throat and shuts me down, conversation over. “As I was saying, for us, it’s not enough to be, say, decent equestrians or quick speed skaters. Riders will be going to the next summer games. The school allows them to do half days to accommodate training.”
“Wait, the Olympics? To compete?” I ask. I clarify because she says it so casually, as though earning a spot on the USA roster were no more difficult or unusual than watching a show on Hulu.
She furrows her perfect brow. “Obvi. And the skaters have cadres of—” she looks up at the brilliant blue late summer sky as she begins to tick off the experts on her neatly manicured fingertips “—coaches, managers, sports agents, trainers, nutritionists, branding experts, publicists, attorneys, and social media gurus to help them reach their personal bests on and off the ice. There are six North Shore Knights with an eye toward 2018 and 2020. Like I said, we breed excellence.”
I stif le a laugh—both my folks are legitimately famous in their fields and their “cadres” consist of one agent apiece and a financial guy who stops them from blowing all their money on impulse purchases, à la Michael Jackson. It’s only because of Mr. Hochberg that we don’t own fifteen capuchin monkeys or every Aston Martin ever used in a James Bond film, I’m sure of it.
I realize that I’m drifting, which is rude.
Time to focus. I fight my instincts, which trend toward sitting in the back of the classroom, tuning out whatever the teacher’s saying while I daydream about what piece of jewelry I could make next. Often, when I’m introduced to someone new, I create a piece for them in my head. Like when I met Mr. Gorton today? I envisioned a thin, gold tie bar, very simple and tidy, perhaps engraved with his initials on the end in a nice font. With serifs, I think. For Owen, I pictured an etched shark’s tooth, strung on braided leather cord.
I imagine she’d appreciate a gift certificate for Tiffany & Co. instead.
Mallory leans in, all conspiratorially, as though she’s about to share the secrets of the universe. Her breath is overpoweringly minty, but with a faint trace of ammonia behind it. Wish I’d thought to stock up on tubes of Ultrawhite before we left England. I don’t care for the scent of American tooth polish. I should have Cordy ship me some.
“Here’s what you need to understand about this place. We’re winners. Hashtag champions.” She forms a pound sign with the first two bony fingers on both hands when she says this. “All of us. Like, if music is our jam, we expect admission to Juilliard. If we’re actors, we’re so getting in to the Yale School of Drama. And for the rest of us, hello, top-tier college of our choice.”
Her confidence takes my non-mint-and-ammonia-scented breath away. What would it be like to have such self-assurance? To be so convinced of my own abilities?
I do appreciate having inherited the family’s artistic perspective, though. We view situations through the eyes of an artist and see something entirely different than a casual observer would. So, when everyone else looks into a forest and spots nothing but trees, we three are endlessly fascinated by how the faint rays of crepuscular sunlight filter down through leaves and branches like spotlights, illuminating carpets of moss and tiny mushrooms and woodland creatures.
Although, let’s be honest—I bet a lot of their artistic vision is due to the metric shit-ton of drugs they took twenty years ago.
Mallory notices I’m losing focus. Mum says my face is easier to read than a Dr. Seuss book, so I should never play strip poker…unless I’m looking to experiment and then I should relax, tune in to my body, and enjoy myself.
Mallory explains, “While it sounds like we’re arrogant, as the old saying goes, ‘It ain’t bragging if it’s true.’ You’ve seen our stats, right? 156 Illinois State Scholars? A 27.4 ACT composite? 97 percent of us score 3+ on AP exams? I mean, we have thirty-five interscholastic teams that have won more state championships than any other school in Illinois history.”
Should I respond that my old school was next to Soho’s number one falafel stand?
Mallory hustles us to the main building, where the walls are covered with a century’s worth of ivy. I’m loving the gravitas of this campus. I assumed everything in this part of the United States would be like a shiny-new strip mall, just constructed last week, so I’m pleasantly surprised to see buildings with history. I love anything with a past.
Mallory sprints up the steps and bids me to follow. I’m mesmerized watching her legs pump as she leaps from one wide stone riser to the next. Every rock-hard muscle contracts and contorts, each fiber working to propel her forward. Lot of power in those skinny legs. Does the tan help? Zip, zip, zip, like a mountain goat on a vertical face.
Yes, the tan must help.
Once we step inside, the hallway’s less Glee and more Hogwarts or perhaps Downton Abbey, with grand, dark oak-paneled walls and wide staircases illuminated by two stories’ worth of stainedglass walls.
Mallory isn’t interested in sharing the Architectural Digest details, though. Instead, she leads me to the trophy case, spanning from one end of the timber-beam-ceilinged hallway to the other. She practically levitates as she names the various championships the Knights have won over the years. The pitch of her voice rises as she prattles on about achievements both athletic and academic.
I should be impressed by all the bred excellence, but she’s giving off a peculiar vibe. Her energy is Rumpelstiltskin-frenetic, as though all the gold in the world still isn’t enough, she just needs to spin more, more, more.
Suspect Mallory and I won’t be friends. I can tell I’m too mellow for her liking. Not focused enough. Too bohemian. I had the inkling we weren’t destined to be pals when she noticed the shaved patch over my right ear. Guess she didn’t spot that part at first because the rest of my hair’s pretty shaggy. When she did, she caught her breath and asked if I’d had skull surgery.
Um, no, I’d replied, just personal choice.
Then she shuddered.
Now she says, “I could not be more proud of everything the senior class has achieved thus far. Do you realize we have 211 AP scholars?”
I do not; that’s largely because I have no clue what it means.
“Last year, 98 percent of the graduating class went on to college, at 176 colleges and universities.” Her cerulean eyes practically brim with tears as she recounts this triumph.
Then she pauses and stares at me.
What in the bloody hell is she waiting for? Applause? Back slaps? Tips? A biscuit? Actually, a biscuit may be the best option. Her manic behavior could be due to low blood sugar.
“Um…everything sounds fab?” This comes out more as a question than a statement.
“Awesome. So, do you have any questions so far?”
“Um…yes,” I say, thinking about the one big question mark I keep encountering since moving here. “Why’s everyone so uptight when I mention we bought the Barats’ house?”
Her face clouds over. “Long story.”
I glance at the clock on my phone. “I have time.”
“I don’t,” she replies, shutting me down yet again. She appears to take a moment to center herself.
Once righted, she tosses her braid. “Anyway, we’re going to hit the athletic fields and then the math campus, followed by the activities hall, and then I’ll get you to your Good and Evil in Literature first-period class. If we hustle, we can grab an espresso at the coffee cart in the quad before then.”
She smiles at me expectantly.
Maybe she is expecting a tip. Mum says Americans tip more than Europeans and I should be prepared, so I’m keeping dollar bills in my pocket at all times. When Kent and Stephen saw my wad of cash, they laughed, asking me if I was planning to hit up a strip club.
Still, a tip can’t be appropriate here… Can it?
While I internally try to calculate how much 15 percent of a campus tour is worth, I reply, “Thanks for such a thorough introduction. I appreciate it.” Yet what I’d like to say is that I’ve been at this school for only half an hour and already I’m exhausted.
At first glance, Mallory seems the sort to have it all. Lovely and bright and tons of energy. Girls defer to her in the halls as though she’s important, like she owns the place, and boys eye her pretty hair and lean, tan legs. Teachers nod at her in a way that makes me suspect she’s a worthy adversary. But given her reaction to a simple question about the Barats, I wonder if there isn’t something going on beneath the surface.
If she’s spent twelve years running at this frenzied pace, then I’m so very glad to not be her.