Life in small-town Iowa has always been good to popular girl Paige Sheridan. She’s pretty, rich, and well-liked. Her spot on the homecoming court for senior year is all but written in stone. When a night of partying ends in a car crash, her parents ship her off to Paris for the summer to avoid the scandal. Upon her return, Paige finds that things are not the way she left them. Her best friends are distant, her boyfriend doesn’t seem to be as into her as he used to be, and her younger sister is a virtual stranger. The only thing Paige likes in this new life is her creative writing class, and it is there she begins to grapple with some of the problems in her life. The class allows her to confront her past head-on and start to see that her future might look different than she originally imagined.
M. Molly Backes’s debut novel is another take on the Mean Girls story with a pleasantly real narrator and a vivid setting. Contemporary YA that offers a slew of problems to its readers, Backes’s novel will keep most readers turning pages late into the night to see what becomes of Paige and her friends. Gripping, emotionally real, and complicated, this is one to recommend to older teens.
While the story’s central premise won’t shock or surprise readers, Paige’s conundrum is handled in a very real, authentic way. As she begins to find her voice through creative writing, she grows as a character. She’s a likeable but unreliable narrator, and her actions will keep readers glued to the page as she continues to make mistake after mistake.
If only Backes had been so successful with all of her characters. She struggles with her secondary characters especially, and the result is uneven. Some of the characters are extremely well-developed while others are never allowed to transcend their stereotypes. This will distract some readers while others will be willing to gloss right over it.
There’s also the problem of the novel’s subplots, which include homophobic attacks on the writing teacher, Paige’s tensions with her social-climbing shrew of a mother, and an anti-drunk-driving campaign so didactic it borders on the anvilicious side of things. This is, of course, where the otherwise stellar book lost me: the book’s last act features the anti-drunk-driving campaign prominently, and it all feels so forced that it jarred me out of the story. That being said, there’s still a lot to like in this one.
Although the novel runs a little long and struggles with some of its subplots, this is a contemporary YA novel that will work for many readers. Recommended.
The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes. Candlewick Press: 2012. Library copy.