CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 35. . . .May 14, 2010
Cracked Up to Be.
New York, NY: St. Martin's Griffin (Distributed in Canada by H.B. Fenn and Co.), 2009.
214 pp., pbk., $10.95.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 15-18.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
"You were right."
"I'm right about lots of things. Be more specific."
"Becky's not you and that's why I don't want to date her again."
"Many girls aren't me. You'd better get used to it."
"Why? I did awful things to you and I'd do them all over again."
He winces. "I don't think you meant them."
"I meant them."
"You know, that '94 issue of Cosmopolitan didn't have anything in it about G-spots," he says. "But I should have figured you were lying."
"Yeah, you should've."
"But Becky does know where it is." My mouth drops open. I try to recover, but it's too late; Chris saw it. I don't know why I expected Becky to tell me something like that. He smiles. "Doesn't bother you, does it?"
"No." I swallow. "Okay, so why exactly can't you go out on a second date? If it doesn't bother you that she's not me when you fuck her, I don't see why you can't——"
He holds up his hand. "We didn't fuck."
"Oh, I see. Congratulations."
"Where do you think she is?"
"What are you talking about?"
He nods at the poster of Jessica. "Where do you think she is?"
"Dead," I say. "Either that or working as a prostitute. But probably dead."
"Nice. I can't believe you just said that." He blows a strand of hair out of his eyes. "You didn't used to be this cold."
"You know, if I do my homework and I don't come to school hungover anymore, it's still going to be like this. It's not a phase, Chris. This is who I am."
"Do you ever hear yourself?" he asks. "You're so full of shit."
"No, I'm not anymore. That's the point."
He grabs my arm and leans forward, unbearably close. His lips graze my neck and get close to my mouth. I shiver.
"Fuck off, Chris."
He lets me go and stands.
"Good luck with your essay."
Would you want to be Parker Fadley's friend? It wouldn't have been easy a few months ago when she was captain of the cheerleading squad, always voted Prom Queen, and such a good student she topped the honour roll every year. But now? Parker gets drunk at school, insults both her enemies and her friends and will only graduate with her peers if she follows the strict guidelines of her probation and if the staff is lenient with her, despite her insolence and lack of work ethic.
How, one asks, could someone have changed so much and so quickly? This is the question at the core of Courtney Summers' debut novel, Cracked Up to Be, and readers are kept in suspense right to the end as to the catalyst which produced such an extreme fall from grace. Thus, the novel is a teen drama and a mystery combined. Parker has many flashbacks to a particular party, and somehow a missing student is central to the plot. What role did Parker play in her disappearance? Was she too drunk at the time to have any memory now? Is this why she tries to isolate herself from both family and friends to the extent that her parents have placed her on suicide watch?
This young adult novel centres on character. Readers will love to hate Parker, with her wicked sarcasm and biting tongue which turns on anyone close enough to provoke her. Even Jake, the new guy at school who might just be falling in love with her, isn't immune to Parker's nasty side. Former cheerleading team members and even Chris, Parker's previous boyfriend and one of the most popular guys in the school, come up against Parker's rough edges despite wanting to help her. Parker has "attitude" in the extreme, and not in any positive sense of the word.
Yet readers who look beyond the harsh and brittle exterior get glimpses of a very lost soul, out of her depth due to the nightmare she is living. There are crumbs of kindness in Parker. When she lets down her guard, her dog Bailey manages to reach her, and Jake, too, seems to occasionally see flashes of some kind of "pre-disaster Parker."
This is a dark novel, full of teen angst, disillusionment and tension. Other than a generic high school, there is no particular setting; and the novel could take place anywhere in Canada or the United States. The teen characters are used as mirrors or sounding boards which reflect Parker's feelings and actions. Adult characters are minimized and completely ineffectual in their efforts to deal with this troubled teen. A portion of the plot centres on the missing student and Parker's role in that situation, but the novel is not plot driven. Everything revolves around Parker. She commands attention. And despite her protests that she wants to be left alone, attention seems to be her aim.
With its rough language and many references to sexual activity, this is a book which will be suitable for older teen readers. The themes are intense, modern and difficult: substance abuse, teen sex, depression, suicide, guilt. Consequently, the novel is provocative and yet compelling in its dark and haunted way, rather like the character of Parker.
Would you want to be Parker Fadley's friend? Readers will undoubtedly love or hate this strong female protagonist. But one thing is certain—regardless of how they react or relate to her, they won't forget her!
Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French who lives in Ottawa, ON.
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