Alt Ed by Catherine Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reviewing this book is a bit challenging, because while it was going on, there was really nothing wrong with it, except for what didn't happen during it. Let me explain.
As I began this book, I was instantly drawn in. I loved Susan, our protagonist, for her sweetness and because she wasn't typecast as the fat funny girl. Call this a modern take on The Breakfast Club, where, instead of detention, these kids have an entire semester of after-school meetings with the counselor because of some bad behavior they each engaged in. Each participant is developed over the course of the book, morphing into wonderful, well-developed characters. As the book unfolds, we learn why most of them are there, although most of it is saved for what turns out to be the climax, since what should have been the climax is not actually included in the book.
I feel a bit guilty for withholding praise for what is NOT in the book, but with this one, I have to. There's an agent who posts on her blog the importance of knowing where to start your story. This author seemed not to know where to end her story. Normally, if that was the case, you'd think it was because an author dragged on and on after the climax, or left you with a cliffhanger. But this one just sort of...ended. Abruptly. In the middle of nowhere, right before what had been building towards what I thought would be the climax. It wasn't the kind of ending that lets you imagine what happens next, but the kind that makes you wonder if some pages were missing from your book, or if an incomplete draft got sent to the publisher and no one noticed. So while I enjoyed the book, I didn't enjoy the not-book that was missing.
I'm not opposed to book without happily-ever-after endings. I'm not opposed to a few loose ends--I like feeling like the characters live on after the last page. But this book leaves A LOT of loose ends. In fact, pretty much every end is left hanging.
(view spoiler)[ Susan and her dad started down a path to reconciliation, which was a good end for their story. But what about her and her brother? Nothing changed. What about things with Brendon? We can assume they stayed friends. What was going on with the counselor--was he sick? What happened with Randy? With Cal? Did he like Susan? Why was he such a bully? Did he ever change, or begin to change, or see that what he was doing was wrong? We never learn why he's there, or what he does when he finds out Susan and Brendon trashed his truck. In fact, we never even learn why they did it. We are told they are going to a confrontation where we will find out why he's there, and they will confess. And then the book ends. (hide spoiler)]
Still, while I was reading it, I was completely captivated. It was one of those books that made me wish I'd written it. For someone who thinks the characters make the novel, this was perfect. Susan was sweet, but not too much of a pushover, and not a cliche. Amber was tough and wounded, but not a cliche either. Tracy, the perfect cheerleader who wasn't perfect, clashes with Brendon, the ostracized gay guy. Though some of the characters aren't exactly original, they all come alive enough that it doesn't matter that they are types, because here, they are real people who just happen to fall into a category. Each character is handled with compassion, realism, and care. Overall, Randy was the character who elicited the most emotion. He was the sweet jock, idolized by our protagonist but not quite as perfect as she'd like to imagine. He went along with the bullying, even when he didn't agree with it, which made him as culpable as anyone. I would have liked Susan to accept this a bit more than she did, but it didn't affect the story much. It was a nice change in today's YA landscape to read about a girl falling for the nice-guy hero. Honestly, I kept waiting for her to fall for Cal, because, well, that's how most YA girls are portrayed now--always irresistibly attracted to the asshole. Randy's character was so wonderfully drawn, someone we have all known, who goes along with his friends even when he shouldn't, easy-going and kind to everyone.
This is a wonderful book about bullying, conformity, friendship, family, stereotypes, and judging people, among other things. There are lots of books with the same message, but not many as good as this one. Would have been a 5-star if it had felt complete, or had a real ending. </["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]>
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