In an attempt to escape her crappy home situation, cynical and snarky Bianca Piper begins a no-strings-attached enemies-with-benefits relationship with Wesley Rush, the infuriating guy who informs her that in her group of friends, she's the Duff. The designated. ugly. fat. friend. The premise here is interesting and refreshing, a brand-new take on the age-old themes of self-esteem issues and romance. Except in this story, far from being a hopeless romantic, Bianca doesn't believe in love. At least, not for teenagers, not after getting hurt years earlier by a guy she truly cared about. While I really liked the idea of this premise, the plot didn't quite match up. The story moves at a nice pace, but ends up seeming very bare bones -- as if there was supposed to be more happening than we actually saw. There are a few very important subplots here, including her screwy family life and the self-esteem issues she has around her two best friends after being called "the duff." Ultimately though, the friendship issues are hardly explored until near the end of the book, and though her family's situation rapidly deteriorates, it's really not all that bad when she begins her fling with Wesley. Her mother is gone a lot (a lot), but Bianca honestly doesn't seem to care except for the hurt her dad is feeling, and I think this would have played out so much better if we'd been able to know Bianca's family a bit better. Our main character is such a jaded, cynical girl that even though we know she cares about her family and friends we only know this because we're told -- it rarely ever comes through fully in her actions or words.
I'm sure many readers will like the cynical Bianca Piper, but for me it was a bit too much. She crossed the line between snarky and mean too often and though she obviously cared deeply about what was going on with her dad, in most respects she was very self-absorbed, opinionated, and judgmental. Despite the fact that I actually liked many of the secondary characters, including her two best friends, I couldn't help wondering why they would hang out with Bianca, who continually avoided them, blew them off, lied to them, and ignored them. As someone who's had too many friends who did that exact thing, this rubbed me the wrong way. I realize, of course, that the main character and her relationships in this book weren't meant to be sweet, happy, and worthy of a cheesy romantic comedy, but going so far in the other direction pushed me away. There are a few wonderful scenes between Bianca and her dad (one in particular), but their relationship is never explored enough to really make it stand out or outweigh many of the other relationships in the book.
There are quite a few themes here, most of them related to labels (such as "duff" and "slut") and self-esteem issues. While these are good messages and I'd love to read more books dealing with them, the way they were handled here didn't make them appealing. The themes are heavy-handed and far too obvious, culminating in this feeling like A Book With A Message. However, despite being annoying, the handling of the themes fits in perfectly with Bianca's in-your-face personality and narrative voice.
But, okay, let's take a break from all this negativity. The setting here? Impressive. Though the always-bland school setting detracts from it a bit, the contrast between Wesley and Bianca's houses plainly shown without being over-the-top or in-your-face.
All-in-all, this book with the so-cute cover was a disappointment. Important relationships seemed skimmed over. Bianca was unlikeable in many ways; despite the family issues the book had no emotional resonance, and the themes were overwrought. Though the premise was new and refreshing, and the setting was well-written, it wasn't enough to carry -- or save -- the book.