Cara Leonard has never been one of the girls who embodies self-confidence and poise. Those girls reign supreme over their schools. Those girls–the Populazzi–are the ones whom other girls look to for all things. When her parents announce a move to a new school, Cara’s best friend Claudia urges her to start over and climb her way up the social stratosphere with the help of the Ladder. The Ladder uses relationships as its rungs, and if Cara does everything right, Claudia thinks she can reach the top and become the supreme Populazzi. However, it isn’t long before Cara realizes that using the Ladder is more complicated than originally imagined, and if she continues to work the system, she might just lose everything that’s important to her.
Elise Allen’s novel about a sixteen-year-old social climber is often funny and (very) occasionally poignant, but it certainly doesn’t re-invent the wheel in any way. All the elements of a Cinderella-style story are here, and there’s very little derivation from what is expected. Indeed, Allen’s novel suffers from being a little too predictable: there’s never any point where the reader doesn’t know how the story will play out. Cara will rise to the top, lose it all, and have that moment of realization about what she’s done wrong and who she’s done it to.
That’s not to say that the novel doesn’t have positive aspects to it. Allen’s story is often funny. Cara’s relationship with Claudia is especially well-done, and the two girls have a believable chemistry between them that lends credence to their years-long friendship. In addition to the female friendship, Cara herself is often funny, smart, and observant about the people around her. However, many of the secondary and tertiary characters seem like stock cut-outs and add very little dimension to to the tale that Allen is trying to weave.
One of the major issues that this reader had with the book was the issue of Cara’s stepfather Dan. Readers are treated to some basic hints about what a total douche bag he is, but it’s never dealt with in any satisfying way. Indeed, Cara’s interactions with her family were some of the most interesting aspects of the story, and yet they were often glossed over in favor of the blander, more shallow interactions with Cara’s schoolmates. There’s never any conclusion to the fact that Dan is emotionally manipulative and possibly emotionally abusive. While this reader doesn’t require a neatly tied-up little bow, some acknowledgment of what was set forth in the first half of the book would be appreciated in the conclusion.
This book will find fans. There’s a readership out there for a book like this: a tamer version of Mean Girls, where readers are treated to a story about a nobody becoming a somebody and gaining access to the elite upper-crusters. The problem is that there’s so little else going for the story that many readers will forget the story as soon as they finish it. Those looking for a fun read have found a good match in Populazzi. Those looking for depth and striking social commentary should keep searching.
Recommended for fans of YA that focuses on the glittery surface of popularity, and for fans of Hilary Duff’s Elixir, because Allen co-wrote it with Duff.
Populazzi will hit bookshelves on August 1, 2011.
Full disclosure: Electronic copy accepted for review from publisher.