Like the Red Panda

When Stella Parrish’s wealthy, drug-addicted parents fatally overdose at her eleventh birthday party, her erratic but happy childhood abruptly ends. Having no family to care for her, she is relocated from Newport Beach to the sterile, planned community of Irvine, California, to live with foster parents Shana and Simon Roth. This inept couple have no idea how to relate to a bright, self-assured child like Stella, leaving her largely to her own devices to drift through adolescence as a high-achieving but cynical student with no friends other than her cantankerous, suicidal grandfather.

Two weeks before her high school graduation, Princeton-bound Stella experiences an epiphany in her drama class while participating in an “imaginary beach ball” exercise: “I knew I was done. That’s it. There comes a point when you’re just too exhausted to pretend to have fun at a beach that doesn’t exist.” She realizes it is possible to feel “apathy in the afternoon when you woke up in the morning believing you cared.”

During the last few days of school her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend reappears, but the strong emotions he stirs in her are insufficient to reawaken an interest in the future. She also feels a strong connection to similarly alienated fellow-student Ainsley Cleveland, until she realizes that Ainsley’s “brain was still firing images and hypothetical situations and future dates.” In the end she gives in to her grandfather’s pleas to end his life, while taking her own as well.

Twenty-four-year-old author Andrea Seigel unerringly captures the absurdities and hypocrisies of upper middle class suburban high school life in Like the Red Panda. Her descriptions of the frazzled principal, the inept, insecure AP English teacher, the grade-obsessed students, and empty school rituals are very funny, despite the novel’s heartbreaking theme. This first-time author does an excellent job of maintaining a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy in a compelling tale of adolescent angst.