Fourteen-year-old Brett McCarthy is an ordinary eighth grade girl, not particularly beautiful or brainy, but reasonably smart and notably athletic. She is a great storyteller with a passion for words, and her feisty, independent spirit makes it difficult for her to find her place in the clique-ish world of junior high. Brett has always been best buddies with Diane Pelletier, but this year, an unwelcome interloper in their circle of friends and a telephone prank gone awry cause the two to have a falling-out. Students in the lunchroom quickly take sides, and before she knows it, Diane has joined the popular crowd and is going out with one of the hottest guys in the class, leaving Brett out in the cold. To make things worse, and also to put them in perspective, Brett discovers that her beloved grandmother, Nonna, has terminal cancer, and that Diane's parents are going through a messy divorce. Brett is bewildered because everything is changing, and it seems that her entire world is falling apart.
Brett at first reacts to the upheavals in her life by getting in trouble, but with the perceptive guidance of Nonna and the support of her super-studious but reliable friend Michael, she begins to understand that life and relationships are a constant process of redefinition. Things change, and people do too; they come and go in the lives of those around them, and there is nothing wrong with that. To be human is to be a "work in progress," and the important thing is to learn to accept that fact about one's self, and to be able to allow for it in others.
Published in 2008, Maria Padian's first novel Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress has exceptionally strong, quirky characters, and is realistic and eminently contemporary. The frenetic backdrop of "lousy friend(ships)", instant messaging, iPods, school soccer games, and cheerleading tryouts seems all-encompassing to Brett, until she slowly develops the ability to understand and accept these elements as part of the larger fabric of living. The author captures with astute clarity the exciting, confusing, and sometimes heartbreaking world of junior high school social dynamics and the vagaries of family life, and communicates intimately what it feels like to be stuck on the awkward threshold of maturity.