Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review: The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes

*book image courtesy of Goodreads*

Title:  The Princesses of Iowa  
Author:  M. Molly Backes
Genre:  Young Adult Realistic Fiction 
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Format:  NetGalley Digital Galley
Release Date:  May 8, 2012

Paige Sheridan lives the perfect life. She’s pretty, rich, and popular, and her spot on the homecoming court is practically guaranteed. But when a night of partying ends in an “it-could-have-been-so-much-worse” crash, everything changes. Her best friends start ignoring her, her boyfriend grows cold and distant, and her once adoring younger sister now views her with contempt. The only bright spot is her creative writing class, led by a charismatic new teacher who encourages his students to be true to themselves. But who is Paige, if not the homecoming princess everyone expects her to be? In this arresting and witty debut, a girl who was once high school royalty must face a truth that money and status can’t fix, and choose between living the privileged life of a princess, or owning up to her mistakes and giving up everything she once held dear (Summary via NetGalley).

When you first start reading The Princesses of Iowa, you get the feeling that it will be another Mean Girls in print form, where the nasty mean queens that rule the world and school get their comeuppance in the end. Yes, there are nasty mean girls, and some of them do get their comeuppance in the end, but there is far more to the story than that. Instead of hearing the typical story of the bullied girl, the reader is given the unique perspective of the popular party girl who realizes this can’t be all that life is about. After walking away from a horrible car accident and being banished to Paris to work as an au pair (aka: slave labor) for the summer, Paige returns home to discover that things have changed. Or maybe she has changed.

Paige is an amazing character. Her ability to turn her life around and not succumb to the pressure put on her by her parents, friends, and teachers is nearly inspirational. But she did it in an understated manner. Backes manages to teach a lesson without shoving it down your throat and making it obvious from page one. She subtly suggests that being the person you want to be is the most important thing in the world. She deserves applause just for managing to do that while keeping the book interesting at the same time. At first Paige lets her friends and in particular her mother, define who she is and really who she wants to be. She doesn’t make decisions for herself, she wears what her mother tells her, she takes classes based on what her friends take, she drinks because her friends drink, she acts the way she acts because her friends act that way. She is almost like a robot, spouting out pre-programmed words according to what others want to hear. But all of that changes when Paige takes a creative writing class—coincidentally because she thought her boyfriend was taking it—and meets Mr. Tremont. He encourages her and the others in the class to embrace the world around them, to see the truth and to write what they feel. Paige starts to realize that maybe she can be the person she wants to be, not the person every one else thinks she should be.    

I found Backes to be a really good writer, able to create characters that are very realistic. Paige, Lacey and Nikki are the epitome of the pretty, popular girls who grew up in a small town. They reminded me of many of the girls I went to high school with in my small Montana town. The teenagers in the book even remind of those I grew up around, with nothing better to do than drink, gossip and fight.  Paige’s mom, Jacque, is probably one of the vilest mothers I have ever come across in a book. She is very critical about superficial crap—looks, weight, what people are wearing—most of which is directed toward her daughters. I could not find one redeeming quality in this character; she epitomizes all the bad parents in the world. But how much I hated her is a testament to Backes writing, she created a character I could really feel passion about. Backes also captured the attitude of people in a small town perfectly. The people of Willow Grove, Iowa embody many of the prejudicial attitudes of small mid-western towns. Beware, there are a lot of homosexual slurs in this book, some of which can be offensive. Sadly, that is how some of these tiny towns are and how the people in those towns raise their children. Backes really portrays this well.

I was actually surprised that I enjoyed The Princesses of Iowa as much as I did. I was coming off of a long run of reading contemporary young adult fiction, and I was a bit worn out from reading so much of it. So I started reading this book already a bit prejudiced toward it, for no other reason than it was contemporary fiction (I tend to prefer paranormal fiction). I am glad I let go of those prejudices and was able to enjoy the book. It’s very good and I highly recommend it. There are some themes in the book that would be better for older teens, so I suggest this book be read by high school age and up. I think they will enjoy it.

My grade for The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes:

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