Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Book of the Week: CRACKED UP TO BE by Courtney Summers

Note: This week’s book is actually YA and filled with adult language and adult content. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie. 

I am gaga, over the moon crazy about a book by a debut author. It’s just so very, very good. The book is Cracked Up To Be (great title) and its author is twenty-year-old Courtney Summers who wrote it when she was eighteen (which makes me way jealous of her talent). It’s the sort of book you wish you’d thought of, but you didn't and now Courtney Summers already wrote it, so it’s too late.

By way of a synopsis for the uninitiated, here’s the official summary from the book’s back cover: 

Perfect Parker Fadley isn't so perfect anymore. She’s quit the cheer-leading squad, she’s dumped her perfect boyfriend, and she’s failing school. Her parents are on constant suicide watch and her counselors think she’s playing games… but what they don’t know, the real reason for this whole mess, isn't something she can say out loud. It isn't even something she can say to herself. A horrible thing has happened and it just might be her fault.

So few books about high school appeal to me. I wasn't crazy about high school when I was in it and I have little interest in reliving it through the eyes of a fictional character. Worse, most books written about high school are not really about high school at all, but rather a wonderful place filled with sexy girls and pretty boys who have never needed Clearasil, high schools that no person anywhere ever actually attended. I blame the influence of shows like Dawson’s Creek, 90210, and even my beloved Smallville for perpetuating this myth of the school where all the cool kids went and you didn't.

These books are often filled with shy heroines who always do the right thing and boys who are way too confident and smooth for their age who want to discuss their feelings and romance the heroine in ways most grown men have not learned to do rather than awkwardly feel her up before telling his friends she’s a total slut the next day. I didn't care for this genre when I was a teenager and reading books from it now as an almost thirty-year-old man makes me feel creepy. I’m a little old for cheerleaders and football captains (unless they’re named Clark Kent).

One of the best books I’ve ever read about high school is probably Christine by Stephen King, and another would, of course, be Catcher in the Rye. But now, Cracked Up To Be joins my short list of books that really, truly nail the experience. 

Courtney Summers’s high school is the one you and I went to and Dawson didn't; the one where the kids drank and did drugs and slept around because school was such a drag that they couldn't wait to graduate, yet they were simultaneously terrified of the real world that was always just around the corner. Courtney Summers’s high school students are the ones who know everything about the world and are frustrated that their parents and teachers know nothing, while being simultaneously aware that they don’t know anything. Anger and hormones and petty drama run amuck, and no one understands! No one!

The opening line to Summers’s book is one of the most brilliant opening lines I've ever read ever. It is so good, in fact, I’m going to take the time to reproduce it here:

Imagine four years.

Four years, two suicides, one death, one rape, two pregnancies (one abortion), three overdoses, countless drunken antics, pantsings, spilled food, theft, fights, broken limbs, turf wars—everyday, a turf war—six months until graduation and no one gets a medal when they get out. But everything you do here counts.
High school.

My God, it’s poetry isn't it? And the prose only gets better from there, filled with observations that are every bit as poignant.

Shortly after this phenomenal hook, the mother of all bad words appears (the one Ralphie said in A Christmas Story). And it shows up again and again throughout the narrative along with all its big bad word friends. A book that is brave enough to use the language the characters would actually use the way they would actually use it always catches my attention and Parker Fadley’s first person narration is some of the most authentic I've ever read. 

She’s angry and she swears a lot and kudos to Summers and her editor for not censoring her. Parker’s language colors the story in a realistic hue and it’s refreshing to read profanity done right. A character is expressed by a writer through language and Parker's language expresses her so completely and so memorably she becomes a real person in the mind of the reader.

Yet Courtney Summers is no one-trick writer and she produces supporting characters every bit as believable as the main character, thereby authenticating Parker and her dilemma. The teachers behave and speak as teachers behave, the football captain acts like a football captain (a bit of a jerk at times, but full of heart and popular for a reason), and the new head cheerleader is so believable in her actions and her behavior so intricately fascinating that she could be the star of her own book. 

Parker’s mom and dad are believable as the distraught parents who haven’t got a clue what to do with their wild and destructive daughter. Every one of these characters makes a mistake in the book, some of them do evil and then good, and they all behave the way real flesh and blood people behave. There are no good guys and bad guys, only people in conflict, and that is always interesting.

A big part of Cracked Up To Be is a romance that develops between Jake, the handsome, scrappy new kid (of course) and Parker. This isn't the wild fantasy of teenage vampire romance, but a believable relationship. I saw myself in Jake a few times as I too was often attracted to the troubled, angry girls at his age (long before I met Mrs. Ninja!). 

And like Jake, I had to put up with quite a lot, but there’s something about being a high school boy that convinces some of us we’re the hero looking out for the damsel in distress when we put up with some of what Jake puts up with in this book. Like Meatloaf, we will do anything for love, and there's a universal appeal to the dynamics of Jake and Parker’s relationship. He follows after her like a puppy, she treats him terrible—and that, my friends, regardless of which sex plays which role, is often a real high school romance.

Finally, there’s Parker. I liked Parker Fadley the same way I liked Holden Caulfield. She’s mean, nasty, and full of hate, but man is she interesting to watch interact with the world around her. Fiction is rarely boring when the protagonist is prone to conflict with everyone. And yet, Parker is a sympathetic character and it is impossible not to empathize with her. 

She’s a former head cheerleader and honor roll student who dated the captain of the football team and she used to be the most popular girl in school. But something happened to Parker that transformed her into a failing drunk who broke up with the captain and quit the squad. And it's this question in the reader's mind: “what could've happened to Parker to bring about this change?” that drives the main suspense of the story. 

Summers doesn't spill the beans until the end of the book and I won’t blow it for you either. But what a masterful stroke on Summers’s part creating a character who’s behavior increases the tension of the plot and plot tension that further illuminates and makes compelling the character! She's written the perfect literary equation.

Okie doke. I've rambled on long enough. The only other thing I have to comment on is how happy this book’s ending made me. I became terrified as I read the last few pages of this book that the big hidden incident that made Parker who she is now wouldn't really be severe enough to justify her behavior (not to worry—it does). 

Also, Summers resists the temptation to wrap everything up in an overly happy ending or an everyone-is-devastated-because-it’s-Hamlet-and-oh-so-sad ending. Nor does she let Parker completely off the hook. Summers is too smart for that and I’m sorry to have doubted her. Her ending strikes the perfect balance between happy and sad, wrapped up and left open, and is the only ending the book could have. Good on her for not coping out.

So in summation: Cracked Up To Be is a must-read book and Courtney Summers is an incredibly talented author.

Click here to read an interview with author Courtney Summers!

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.  


  1. I loved the books you posted, James and the Giant Peach and A Wrinkle in Time so I took the time to read this book too. You are right, the hook is absolutely amazing.

  2. It's a brilliant book. Not for the feint of heart, but well worth the couple of hours you will spend reading it. There is a bit of bad language, but truthfully, who went to high school with out it? It's a book about life and the things that happen along the way that you can't change but have to get through some how. I highly recommend this book.

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