Thanks to her dyscalculia, senior Charlotte Locke's new school won't let her into the GATE (gifted & talented) program which means that not only are her non-math classes painfully boring, but her chances at getting into the type of prestigious university her father expects are less than none. With her family falling apart thanks to her dad's new writing career and a new school that she hates, Charlotte falls into the orbit of Amanda, otherwise known as the Girl Wonder. Amanda, with her pink hair and brilliant GATE status, is legendary around school and exactly the sort of person that Charlotte -- insecure and overshadowed by her brilliantly successful family -- wants to be around.
To be perfectly blunt, Charlotte was not the most interesting or likable protagonist. She's sympathetic mostly because of her father having impossible expectations for her, but aside from that it's obvious that her mother and younger brother are supportive of her and care about her. She's smart, but tends to think of herself as a victim -- of her family, of her school's GATE requirements, and of life in general. After rejecting the first (nice, normal) girl who tried to befriend her, Charlotte sets her sights on Amanda and the super-cute debate club boy, Neal. Both are GATE students and extremely popular, which is what Charlotte wants. And this is where the story becomes completely not what I expected, veers in a direction that seemed off-putting considering the incredibly safe feeling of the first half of the book. As Charlotte gets deeper in with Amanda and Neal, she seems to forget who she is and agree to anything they suggest -- ditching school, lying, stealing, drugs, and sex that leaves her completely confused about the nature of her relationship with Neal. While the beginning of the story is unrealistically safe and un-teenaged when it comes to the characters' dialogue and actions. Charlotte throws around words like "twitter-pated" in the beginning and by the middle her character seems to have been replaced as she becomes more and more like the girl her new friends expect her to be. If this means doing things she never before considered -- well, so be it. It was difficult for me to cheer on a character like this, one who constantly feels sorry for herself and is so easily persuaded by others. As a reader, the reality of Charlotte's friends and their feelings toward her is incredibly obvious and this makes it all the more frustrating that Charlotte -- despite being supposedly smart -- is so oblivious to the realities around her.
That said, while Charlotte's personality was easily swayed by those she was around, the family aspect of the story was brilliant though I wish it had been more in the forefront instead of a background story. Charlotte's genius little brother and professor mother are supportive and kind, but because her newly-published father who's been called "the literary heir to Franzen," has such unreasonable expectations of her, she feels inferior and looked-down-upon by her entire family. Though there were parts of the story that were predictable (Charlotte's romantic storyline, for instance), the ending here -- one involving Charlotte's family and the cute-but-dorky boy next door -- all but saves the book. Charlotte's personality may be easily swayed throughout most of the novel, but by the end it's clear that she's made some serious headway in realizing who she really is and is a stronger person because of it. This book mixes the grit of Amy Reed's Beautiful and the family-and-outsider elements of Lorraine Zago Rosenthal's Other Words for Love; I'd recommend it for fans of either novel.