Rachel Klein: The Moth Diaries (2002)

The Moth Diaries

Did you like being an adolescent? Looking back I can’t say it was much fun. I would even say it was pretty awful. A whole lot of insecurities, suffering and drama. When I studied cultural anthropology some years later we read Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, which was her first publication. At the time when she wrote it, cultural anthropology was seen as a means to better understand Western culture and society. When she went to Samoa Mead’s wish was to investigate adolescence in another culture and to see how much of what girls in the US went through was rooted in the culture. Pretty much everything that is experienced as awful when growing up in the US or Europe was missing in Samoa. While her research was later criticized for being to idealizing, it still contains a lot of valuable information. Maybe Samoa wasn’t the idyllic paradise she saw in it but the young Samoan girls decidedly didn’t suffer like many girls did and still do in Western societies.

The Moth Diaries depicts adolescence in its most dysfunctional forms. Obsessions, anorexia, self-inflicted wounds, suicide. It is an intense and intriguing book, a painful story told by an unreliable narrator, in form of diary entries. The microcosm of a boarding school, set in an old Gothic looking building adds further depth to the story.

Her psychiatrist later tells the narrator that she suffered from “borderline personality disorder complicated by depression and psychosis”.  The prologue tells us that she has left this behind. But is she really cured, is she really better? What prize did she pay for that? And was everything she experienced and witnesses just the output of a vivid imagination?

The narrator’s father has committed suicide. Her mother cannot deal with an adolescent and sends her to boarding school where the narrator forms a close relationship with another girl, Lucy. Returning after a longer holiday break, the narrator must realize that her best friend is more interested in the new girl Ernessa. Ernessa is pale and mysterious, she never eats or sleeps and the narrator is convinced that she is a vampire.

What is interesting in the way this is told is how the book manages to show that when you are alone during an important phase of your life, isolated even, and you are surrounded by suffering that you don’t understand, you may end up interpreting facts in a fantastical way. Or, to say it differently, you may have a psychotic episode.

While books like Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, tell a normal college story spiced up with vampires, The Moth Diaries does exactly the opposite. What really goes on in this boarding school, the obsessive dieting that turns into self-inflicted starvation, the claustrophobic friendships that turn into erotic relationships, the mobbing, all this is much more painful than the vampires populating contemporary high school dramas could ever be. Whether or not Ernessa is a vampire, is ultimately not that important.

What made me feel particularly uncomfortable is how the grown-ups deal with the girls in this book. With the exception of one or two teachers, they are all dysfunctional and abusive.

The Moth Diaries is an eerie and uncanny depiction of adolescence with a very Gothic feel. It is full of  inconvenient emotions, told by a narrator who is confused but at the same time extremely wise and insightful. One could call The Moth Diaries a contemporary and female version of The Catcher in the Rye. I found it painfully poignant.

The Moth Diaries has been made into a movie. Has anyone seen it?

26 thoughts on “Rachel Klein: The Moth Diaries (2002)

  1. I’ve seen the movie but not read the book and TBH a lot of these adolescent issues didn’t come across in the film – or at least not to me. I thought it was just another vampire story. Maybe if I’d read it first….

    • It’s a spoiler to say it but in the book there is no vampire. When I saw the trailer I was afraid that they turned it into something else. Although some author on the guardian named this one of the Top 10 vampire novels.
      In any case it’s an intense book.

      • I’m not sure that intensity was captures on film and it’s not made clear at the end how much was ‘real’ and how much imagined – or who or what Ernessa actually is. I don’t know how much these things matter in the book.

        • The book is very much about all the negatice aspects of adolescence but there is a doubt at the end but it’s never really very heavy on the vampire theme. just a very orginal look at it.

  2. Interesting. I think I would really like this one. I’m drawn to odd stories like this and I love flawed characters. I think the adults will irritate me though. And I haven’t seen the movie. I’ll probably read the book first. I’m kinda a stickler when it comes to that–at least most of the time.

    • I think it’s better to rad the book first in this case. I’m really not sure the movie is anything like it. There are so many twists in that book.
      I’d be interested to know what you think of it.

  3. Your post makes me think of all the teen suicides we read about in the headlines. So hard for teens to realise that this is just a phase and life will move on.

    No I haven’t seen the film

    • I think the movie and the book are two very different things.
      I was left alone with most of the things that were hard for me at the time and I guess that’s the same nowadays. Mobbing and peer pressure are quite ugly.
      When you’re in it it’s hard to see the end. That’s why I loved the Book 13 Reasosn Why which was about all the reasons why a girl committed suicide.

  4. Nice review, Caroline! One of my friends recommended ‘The Moth Diaries’ last year, but I didn’t know what it was about till I read your review. It looks like quite an intense book. When I was in school, it didn’t seem such a bad place, but these days things have become so hard for teens at school. It is interesting that this book is an inversion of the ‘Twilight’ series in a way. It looks like the movie took some liberties with the main story – this is sad. I liked your comparison of this book with ‘A Catcher in the Rye’. Thanks for this interesting review!

    • Thanks Vishy. It was intense. I’m not sure whether it’s not harder for girls. It could be. Of course there were some problems like drugs that boys face as well but this fixation with being skinny is far less of a problem.
      I should have mentioned that the book is set in the 70s or 80s. It’s not entirely clear and maybe teenager nowadays have it easier although I don’t think so.
      I thought it was an extremely interesting reinterpretation of the vampire.
      It really doesn’t look as if the movie was true to the book.

  5. Although my childhood was pretty tame–maybe even boring really, I would have no desire to ever go back to it (though I often wish I could have moments in life with no serious responsibilities…). I was wondering what made a girl in Somoa so different than in a Western country (I’ve never read Mead), once yo started listing things like anorexia–oh, I thought. This sounds like a really interesting book–I don’t read vampire books, but it sounds like this is something quite different. Sounds like a good book for Carl’s RIP reading later this year–though I might have to look for the movie.

    • I’ve seen it listed as a vampire novel but you could say it’s just because vampires are mentioned and the narrator thinks about them, I would really not call this a vampire novel per se.
      I’ve read a lot of Margaret Mead’s books and can recommend them all. Very accessible and interesting. Her books on gender as well.
      Those girls in Samoa really dind’t have this kind of neurotic problems Western girls may have.
      It’s an intense book and quite eerie, at times it was like a ghost story, crime… It’s unique and would be a great choice for RIP.

  6. I have not seen the film either. Indeed adolescence for many of us as/is a crazy time filled with turmoil. From my own experience, though I did not encounter a lot of abusive adults when I was that age, I sure encountered a lot of dysfunctional ones.

    • I met tons of dysfunctional ones and really didn’t enjoy being 16. School was terrible… I wouldn’t want to go back. After 20 it started to get much better.

  7. This sounds like a fascinating book. Adolescence was a hard time for me, even though I really had nothing serious to complain about. Just the change from childhood to adulthood is difficult in itself, so I can’t imagine how bad it is when surrounded by dysfunctional or abusive people. I’m really sorry to hear that your experience was so bad, Caroline.

    • Like the character in the book I could say “I manged to survive it”. 🙂 It was pretty bad indeed.
      I liked her unusual approach, to play with the vampire myth to exemplify being an outsider.

  8. Not sure this would appeal to me, but you’ve made me want to read Coming of Age in Samoa. There is so much emphasis on beauty and being thin in Western cultures, even worse than when I was an adolescent.

    • I was wondering whether it’s not a bit better but reading the statistics of how many and how earl girls undergo plastic surgery it must be far worse even.
      I can recommend all of Mead’s books. Sex and Temperament in Three Savage Society is probably the best. Mary Catherine Bateson, Mead’s daughter, wrote a fantastic memoir. Mead must have been such an amazing woman. I’ve got her biography here and should really read it.

  9. I have painful memories of reading Mead in high school (boring economy teacher)
    I wouldn’t want to be a teenager again either, not that it was that bad. But still.
    I’m not attracted to this but I’m glad you reviewed it. My daughter hasn’t ask for it but Now I know that it’s a book for older readers. I like your YA/children reviews. Most of the time I’m not interested in the books for myself but for my children.

    • She is way too young for this and I don’t even think it was marketed for YA. It could be wrong though.
      I’m not sure why an economy teacher made you read Margaret Mead? And why it was painful? She’s very fascinating and accessible. All of her books look at gender roles.

  10. Hi, Caroline,
    According to my library account, The Moth Diaries is already on its way to my home library after my reading of your post yesterday. I’m eager to read it and am always keeping an eye out for Young Adult fiction that my Children’s Literature college students will read and relate to and hopefully analyze critically, from a literature point of view. During the fall and spring semesters, the average age of my students is about 19-20. Most are NOT devoted readers. So anything I can do to snag them and haul them in is wonderful!

    Thanks for mentioning this book!

    Judith

    • You’re welcome. I wasn’t even aware it was labelled YA but it certainly fits. It will be interesting to discuss with them how much – if anything has changed – as the book is set in the late 70s.
      I think the vampire theme, although one never really knows whether or not it’s there, is quite a food way to get people reading.
      I hope you will like it.

  11. My attention sort of stop in the part where you talk about the writer’s comparing the adolescent in Europe and US with Samoa. To be honest, I often wondered whether the teenagers in the movie are like that in real life..full of problems, bulying, and other things…becase here in my country it’s hardly like that at all. I have been living around teenagers since 2001 and a case of troubled adolescent was probably only about 1%.

    • That’s precisely the thing, it’s a cultural problem. What we in Western cultures belive to be typical for a teenager, is to a large extent absent from Asian or other cultures.
      The book is somehwta extreme but I experineced it almost like that. The buyyling, the drugs, teachers having sex with pupils….

  12. I have to get this for my son’s girlfriend – she suffers from depression and it sounds right up her street (Prozac Nation is one of her favourite books). Thank you for the excellent review!

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