Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: Populazzi

Elise Allen
Harcourt Children's Books
When Cara starts at a new school, her best friend Claudia presents her with The Ladder -- a foolproof plan for her to become the Supreme Populazzi (the most popular girl in school) -- that involves dating her way up the social tiers of high school. For some reason this premise, despite my belief that such divisive high school cliques are a thing of fiction -- really interested me. I've read plenty of loser-girl-tries-to-become-popular novels, but this was the first one that presented an actual plan, complete with binders full of research done by Cara's best friend. I was more than a little intrigued.

In spite of that, by all accounts I should have seriously disliked this novel, if not hated it. There was too much sex, too much drug use, and most of the characters had a way-too-cynical world view. The adults, while not nonexistent, were pretty awful, and Cara's social climbing is the sort of thing I really can't stand.

And yet. And yet I really really enjoyed this novel. The curly-haired, bubbly Cara is a character I was cheering for the entire time, even when she was making the most stupid decisions. Her personality is a little dorky and a little happy, but in order to climb the rungs of The Ladder, she has to squash her unique spirit and take on other personas -- the emo-girl, for instance -- and she does it, not because she especially wants to, but because her best friend is so gung-ho about the whole idea and because she believes the end will be worth it. When Cara's the Supreme Populazzi, things will change: she won't ignore the less-popular or make them feel invisible. Plus, she'll be noticed for once in her school years. After a scarring incident in kindergarten, her and Claudia have been branded losers forever, but nobody knows about that at Cara's new school. The incident in question is part of the overwhelming unbelievability of this book: the fact that not only would her classmates remember such a silly thing, but that it would be the way they still think of her after so many years rang completely false to me. So she peed her pants once when she was five, so what? In order to enjoy this book, you really have to let go and accept the preposterousness of certain things. And though I found Cara easy to root for, I also found her difficult to take at times. The Ladder isn't something she really wants to do at first, especially when she finds a Theater Geek boy she really likes and is able to be herself with -- but after he rejects her, she figures she has nothing left to lose and picks up right where she left off in pursuit of Nate, a soulful DangerZone bad boy that she thinks she can change. At first the fact that, yes, Cara honestly believed she could be the one to change Nate really grated on me. However, this starts to make sense later in the book as we learn more about Cara's home life and parents.

Up until now, Cara's life has been, as she explains it, painfully boring -- a fact that her mother and stepdad know, which seems to be a lot of the reason they trust her so much and why she's able to get away with so much in this book. What starts as some pretty innocent social-climbing quickly turns into Cara living a double life, morphing into an emo-girl, and doing things she never would have imagined with her new DangerZone boyfriend. All in the name of becoming one of the Populazzi. There's a lot of deception and manipulation going on here, but it's not only on the part of Cara. Her best friend seems to be even more invested in The Ladder than she is, which is a big part of the reason Cara continues to follow through with it, and when she does finally find her way into the coveted group, she finds girls and guys even more deceptive and manipulative than herself. But it's all worth it, she figures, to have a solid group of friends that are like sisters to her, and a hot Populazzi boyfriend. While all of this did bother me, the book and Cara's upward-and-downward spiral were insanely entertaining and surprisingly well-crafted. While the characters are labeled (Populazzi, Happy Hopeless, etc.) many of them have more depth than I'd expect. Each character -- from one guy who smokes pot to a girl who absolutely hates feeling so invisible -- has something in their history to help explain or make understandable their behavior and outlook.

At this point I have to mention the adults in the book. Cara's parents sort of disappear mysteriously near the end of the book, but up until that point they were an active force in her life. Usually this would be great, except for the fact that nearly every adult in this book is kind of awful. There's no wonder Cara and her peers are so messed up when these are their parents. It sounds harsh and I really don't want to spoil anything, but the tamest thing many of these parents do is enable teenage drunkenness. Cara's stepdad Karl is especially horrible -- in the oh-my-god-this-isn't-happening-nobody-actually-thinks-like-that sort of way, and his reactions and personality go a long way toward understanding why Cara does many of the things she does. The Cara we meet at the beginning of the book is not the girl who's there at the halfway point and it's this fall from grace that both irritated me and kept me reading -- as much as I didn't agree with anything she did and as much as I didn't buy many of the plot points in the novel, I keep rooting for Cara to find her way home, so to speak. She's a protagonist that, despite being incredibly flawed, is good at heart and worth rooting for.

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