To those who watched Clarissa Explains It All back in the 1990s, Clarissa Darling was either who you wanted to be or who you wanted to be friends with. Between her penchant for breaking the fourth wall, eccentric fashion style, and pride in her individuality, she embodied early teenage confidence in a way that would trigger heroines from Alex Mack to Buffy Summers to Veronica Mars. With Things I Can’t Explain, Mitchell Kriegman brings his most well-known creation into present day, and while life hasn’t exactly been kind to Clarissa since then, it hasn’t made her any less of an admirable or interesting character.
Things I Can’t Explain picks up with Clarissa in her mid-20s, scraping by in New York after her job at the Daily Post ended disastrously—almost as disastrously as the CBS pilot that tried to tell the same story. Clarissa is still trying to make it as a journalist and trying to hold her personal life together after an unpleasant breakup, and she isn’t having a lot of luck with either. Stories of making it in New York are ubiquitous in TV and literature, but Things avoids feeling like a regurgitation as Clarissa jumps from coffee carts to job interviews to cocktail nights at a lively pace.
As a continuation of the Clarissa story, the most important aspect to capture is the character’s inimitable voice, and Kriegman proves he still has it under control. Clarissa’s tendency to comment on everything in her life makes her the ideal subject for a first-person novel, and her inner monologue is a constant flow of references and commentary with a decidedly random skew, from the board game Sorry! on one page to Friedrich Nietzsche on the next. Even the bright animations that popped up on screen make the transition to the page, as Things is peppered with charts and diagrams, ranging from a breakdown of what your choice in coffee says about you to a discussion of guilt versus hair color. It should be distracting, but it fits with the way the character sees the world.
The book also manages to pull in all of the main characters from the show; they’ve changed over time in ways that are perfectly in keeping with who they are. Well-meaning (if occasionally lame) parents Marshall and Janet are in the middle of a separation driven in no small part by the Great Recession, pushing to the front tensions Clarissa could only hint at. Obnoxious younger brother Ferguson went on to great success, only to botch it in the tradition of his countless greedy schemes for even more success. And while best friend Sam isn’t exactly in the picture, the flashbacks to how their relationship grew up and grew apart are the strongest emotional parts of Things, pushing Clarissa into a spiral of idealizing and wondering just what happened.
That willingness to go emotional is the most remarkable part of Things, and what helps push the book past what could be simple fan service for everyone who bought Dr. Martens and caiman alligators to be like Clarissa. Clarissa’s no longer an opinionated teen with oddball outfits—although there are plenty of interludes into her extensive and esoteric closet—she’s a young woman whose life hasn’t followed the path she thought it would. She goes through depressive bouts, drinks far too much coffee, and dwells on her finances and sex life. The thread of awareness that ran through Clarissa is allowed to come closer to the surface than it could on Nickelodeon, taking Clarissa into more realistic and relatable territory.
There are a few rough patches in the book—new characters like Clarissa’s friend who speaks solely in “abbrevspeak” and stalker-ish skater bro ex-boyfriend Norm are too much on the cartoonish side of things, and the ending is neat bordering on unbelievable—yet none of those are enough to get in the way of a lively tone and protagonist. Kriegman said in an interview with The A.V. Club that he never considered Clarissa’s story finished and he still doesn’t, and Things I Can’t Explain leaves things in a position where more of it would be welcome. Clarissa may have grown up quite a bit since her days in suburban Ohio, but she’s still distinctively Clarissa, and still someone you want to spend time with.