Being the new girl at Coral Tree Prep is hard enough. Being the daughter of the new principal? Even worse. When Elise Benton and her sister Juliana start at the school, they hope for the best. Then Juliana catches the eye of Chase, and things start to change. Chase’s best friend is the school’s resident prince, Derek Edwards. Suddenly, Elise and Derek are thrust together in order to accompany Chase and Juliana. Elise doesn’t fall for Derek’s good looks and money, though, and is put off by his cool demeanor. How long before she succumbs to Derek’s hidden charms?
Claire LaZebnik’s first novel for young adults is a modern retelling of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This is an ambitious undertaking, as Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s best-known and most-beloved novel. It wouldn’t be fair to flat-out compare the two, and this reviewer doesn’t intend to. However, there’s no way to review this book without making at least some basic comparisons to the work it draws from. Although it’s undoubtedly cute, frothy, and fun, it’s also slightly silly in an unintentional way. The book’s characters and plot are a little bit of a mess.
Set in Los Angeles at a prestigious prep school, LaZebnik manages to create a modern version of the social scene present in Austen’s book. The Benton sisters are solidly middle-class while many of their peers are much, much wealthier. This is done very well, with LaZebnik illustrating the Benton family’s financial situation in a fairly subtle way. The girls are aware of their socioeconomic standing and make the best of it.
However, once the characters start playing a more prominent role, things start to go south. The first problem is that Elise isn’t much of a heroine. She’s a fairly flat personality (as is her sister, Juliana), and the alluring Derek isn’t any better. Both leads lack chemistry on the page and with each other, making for a rather dull read. Other characters don’t fare much better, including Elise and Juliana’s two younger sisters, Chase, and the other kids at school. Worst of all is the girls’ mother, who is supposed to be a caricature of Mrs. Bennett but ends up being a sort of shrill, silly stock character whose motivations feel hollow. More than once, I felt as though she was inserted into the scene to further the plot and keep the story close to the original source material.
That might be the biggest problem with Epic Fail. LaZebnik concerns herself so much with sticking to the source material and the original storyline that she does a disservice to the characters. None of the warmth, wit, or passion that encapsulates Austen’s story can be found here, and it’s a shame. Retellings of a great story can often stand on their own, but they have to have a spark of their own. This one is too dim to manage even that.
Epic Fail by Claire LaZebnik. HarperTeen: 2011. Borrowed copy.