If you’re a ’90s girl, there’s a fairly decent chance that Clarissa Darling is your role model. Always has been. Always will be. For five silly and insightful seasons, Clarissa Explains It All taught us about growing up helped us perfectly define ourselves through fashion and made us long for a best friend like Sam. Five seasons wasn’t enough, though. Not for viewers and most certainly not for Mitchell Kriegman, the show’s creator.
“Personally, I never understood why Clarissa, the television series, should end,” Kriegman shares. “It was still doing great in the ratings, there were way more stories to tell. There wasn’t really a reason besides some relatively arbitrary rules Nickelodeon had about how old a star could be on the channel. Kind of like celebrity Logan’s Run. So I’ve always had an eye to picking up her story again.
“And she’s such a great character, enduring, clever and resourceful. In a novel, there’s the opportunity to delve way deeper into her personality. Not only does she reveal the unspoken realities that were so captivating in the television series — like why she dressed the way she dressed, what the neighbors thought of Sam’s ladder, her deeper relationship with Sam, why she has always been obsessed with lists and graphs, her hubcap collection, even what happened to Elvis — but there’s also the chance to discover her limitations, how she wants to change, how the world has changed around her, how the relationships she’s had with her mother and father have shaped her, but most of all, how she feels about love.”
Friends of Clarissa may be scoffing. It’s hard to imagine our favorite Darling could have limitations. But it’s a huge part of Clarissa’s life we only now get to explore when, roughly two decades later, fans have the chance to spend time with her again. Enter Things I Can’t Explain, Kriegman’s new novel. It puts us back at Clarissa’s side, lets us look at her more closely and peek over her shoulder at her never-ending list of lists. But don’t let Clarissa’s doodles and notes fool you. Just like her fans on the other side of the tube, Clarissa has grown up. Or, well, at least she’s supposed to have grown up.
“If you think about a girl who, as a teenager, is obsessed with lists and charts about her life and kind of a control freak who never loses,” Kriegman suggests, “what happens to that girl when she reaches her twenties, where the world spirals out of control, where a list doesn’t cut it unless you’re a writer for BuzzFeed, where no matter how many lists you make there’s another list to make and where all those lists don’t replace that job that you just lost or those college loans you can’t pay back or the rent? How does a girl who has those obsessions consider that process in the light of maturity?”
The answer is sticky and not without spoilers. In Things I Can’t Explain, we see Clarissa deal with all of those things the same way a lot of people do by, in all actuality, not dealing with them at all. Even the most “grab the bull by the horns”-type girls have their moments where it’s easier not to address the bigger picture. That’s exactly what we see Clarissa do throughout the book. From not exactly being entirely honest with her parents to not stepping up and talking to the guy she likes, Clarissa’s approach is both relatable and yet still uniquely Clarissa. All these years later, we find Clarissa in New York where the things around her are familiar and yet very different. Elvis still exists… sort of. And Sam? He’s still a huge part of Clarissa’s life. Just not in the same way. If it’s easy for you to reacquaint yourself with Clarissa (and, trust me, it will be), know that it comes thanks to a lot of hard work from Kriegman.
“There were actually lots of challenges to overcome,” he says. “The first was the tone. Clarissa Explains it All was a sitcom filled with breezy dialogue and prone to absurd plots and broad comedy. No one ever really got hurt, even Ferguson. I knew that a book would have a more literary bent and have to dig into the weeds of her life, while still capturing some of that breezy absurdity, so I spent a lot of time trying to find a balance in the book.”
He goes on to admit there were plenty of minor details he needed help with, too.
“Then there was the absurd situation where I realized that fans knew Clarissa better than I did and I’d find myself googling to find Clarissa’s middle name, for instance. I totally forgot that it was Marie and I had to Google to find out her old address…”
So, is Clarissa “back” or did she never really leave? Kriegman is adamant that Clarissa never really left. The key to Things I Can’t Explain‘s perfection isn’t in the flashbacks or the reappearance of familiar faces. What makes the book fun to read and what keeps Clarissa relatable and lovable is that she is very real in the way she’s stayed the same and the ways she’s changed.
“It’s wonderful to be filled with nostalgia and fondness for what we remember, but Clarissa is alive, present day,” Kriegman says. “The test of her character is how she lives now. I’ve seen books and television shows that only feed on nostalgia and I figure Clarissa and her fans are better than that. Clarissa is a tough cookie.”
Catch up with Clarissa and the rest of the Darling family in Things I Can’t Explain, out Nov. 10, to find out just how tough she is.