Initial reaction: This is the point where I completely and utterly understand the negative reactions taken to this book, as my own were quite strong. In sum, I think this might be Harbison's weakest work to date for a number of reasons. It's not just the handling of the themes in this book but also the presentation of the characters and the fact that the lot of it completely misses the mark for what it offers. I didn't like the portrayals here, among other things. Hopefully my full review will get into these measures and why this cast was one I found completely insufferable to the point where the narrative failed.
Writing this review guts me a little because I like Paige Harbison's works, and I'll admit that "New Girl" was rough for me as my first read from her, but I still liked it. I think the biggest complaint I remember making was that it took a bit for the momentum of the story to get going, but ultimately, it was a valuable experience for the way things came together, especially with its function as a "Rebecca" reimaging.
This book was a different story. On one hand, it could deserve kudos for taking an unflinching look at several tough topics - drinking, drugs, sex, infidelity,
among other mentions, but I became very disillusioned with the way it was presented. It felt cliched, overly dramatic, and not all that realistic. Parts of it, don't get me wrong, felt real as far as the voices of the characters and scenarios were concerned, but it's awfully hard to care about the events contained within when the characters don't have a lick of common sense about *talking* out their issues, nor is it easy to sympathize when the characters are so insufferable that you can't stand stepping in their narrative shoes. Sadly, the latter was definitely a problem for me.
Natalie and Brooke are best friends. Natalie is the stereotypical good girl, makes responsible decisions, doesn't do a lot of partying, but is still trying to decide what college she's going to (mostly for lack of money as her father can't afford it and she's not exactly sure what she wants to do). Brooke is a stereotypical party girl, can't decide what college among the ones she's been accepted to, has a seemingly perfect boyfriend. But she swallows herself into partying more often than not, getting swept up in flirting with other boys, drinking, and in general not having much care in the world.
There's so much unspoken tension in this book, some of which actually could be easily resolved if people would actually start asking questions, but no such measure. In a better narrative, I think the unspoken tension would be a good thing, but in this, it felt a bit annoying with the careless, problematic portrayal of events that condemns one thing, and doesn't condemn/condone another.
One night at a party, Brooke invites Natalie to mingle because of wanting to get Natalie a boyfriend. Because apparently Natalie doesn't have a choice and "needs a boyfriend" to somehow have some sense of completion. Natalie isn't particularly feeling up to getting herself in a relationship, but Brooke thinks she knows better than Natalie what Natalie wants. And that bothered me almost from point one in this narrative.
"Isn't that against everything we're supposed to think now? As girls? Aren't we supposed to feel complete without the approval of a man and all that?"
I felt her wave away the comment. "Whatever. Be empowered. Be your own woman. But no matter how independent you are, now matter how much love you have for yourself, there's something only romance can make you feel."
This is from Natalie's perspective with Brooke's feedback. Bad footing right at the start. I already knew that I wasn't going to like where this was going because it undermines Natalie's own sense of asserting what she wants, and not so subtly mocks the value of independence. But I figured I'd follow it, see where it went.
Natalie becomes the life of the party, has too much to drink, and...wakes up not knowing what happened. She believes she's had sex, but she's not sure who with because she doesn't remember anything beyond passing out the night before. This has happened to her before - she's gotten drunk, lost her virginity to a guy who was a jerk. But this time...she wakes up next to her best friend's boyfriend.
Awkwardness ensues. Natalie keeps it secret because she's not sure who she slept with (considering she was seen the night before between two guys at the party: Aiden and Eric) and she doesn't want to upset Brooke. She agrees with Aiden to keep it secret, but he doesn't give her any kind of clarity on the situation either way. So, there are implied lies here.
That didn't sit well with me.
Brooke's perspective only adds a very minimal amount of perspective to the narrative; I'm not sure if it helped all that much in terms of creating a sympathetic viewpoint. For me, it made Brooke that much more irresponsible and infuriating to read about. Because it turns out she never really loved Aiden that much, but yet she's jealous of Natalie and notes the chemistry that Natalie shares with Aiden.
The level of sexual shaming in this is so rampant. >____< It's not so much that I don't think it could be realistic in some turns, but it's just...too much.
The narrative toggles between Natalie's relationship with Eric and Aiden for a time, and you really don't know for a while whom Natalie slept with until a certain revelation makes it clear that Natalie has to know who she slept with.
Drama unfolds from there.
I had a very hard time believing the (read: lack of) parental reactions in this book. Felt too convenient for the level of conflict in the novel.
Aiden's inaction and what he does in this book made me rage. I couldn't be so forgiving of what his character did and it was bad enough that Natalie couldn't remember anything from the night of the party but HE REALIZED that she didn't remember anything and still didn't tell her the truth. WTH man? The scenario felt date rape-ish to me from the very beginning, but the justifications were just as problematic. I didn't like the portrayal here.
Brooke's reaction I saw coming, but I still raged at her for the shaming, assumptions and not even to the point where she would clarify things. Still, there were moments where Natalie and Brooke were trying to work through events, even considering their relationship after the revelation and respective fallout. The ending was neater than I expected it to turn out for the scheme of events. Even then, it still wasn't taken with the kind of care that the narrative could've had with the respective pacing of the book, or with the kind of depth or maturity that the difficult subjects here would note, even considering the naivete of the girls.
Overall, for the presentation of the book, none of this novel worked for me. I saw what it was going for, but I couldn't get behind how easy some of the portrayals were, how it seemed to justify certain things and completely leave other threads by the wayside, and it felt too shallow for the level of the conflict it was taking on. It made sense to me why this book wasn't received well in some circles, and I felt in much the same boat upon finishing the novel.
Not my cuppa.
Overall score: 1/5 stars.
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Harlequin Teen.