In Enchanted Ivy, Lily is visiting her dream college, Princeton, with her mother and grandfather for her grandfather's 50th class reunion. Her grandfather, being deliberately cryptic, takes her to a super-secret meeting on campus where she's told she's been selected to take the Legacy Test. Her task is to find the Ivy Key. She's given no other hints or direction - it's simply "Find the Ivy Key." If she passes, she's guaranteed acceptance into Princeton. If she fails, she's not guaranteed acceptance, but she'll still get her fair shot with all the other applicants.
It seems like a win-win scenario: she won't really lose anything by trying, and if she passes the test, the stress of applying and waiting for the acceptance letter will be off her shoulders for good. Of course, as soon as Lily undertakes the test, she discovers that nothing is as it seems - the gargoyles start talking to her, she's being followed around by a boy with orange hair who says he wants to help (but does he?), and then she's attacked by a creature that can't possibly exist. Suddenly, the test has turned dangerous and the stakes have risen.
I loved the idea of a Da Vinci Code-type scavenger hunt on a college campus, and the idea of talking gargoyles was different enough to intrigue me. Talking gargoyles have of course been done before, but at least they're not fairies or vampires or something else that I'm completely burned out on. I was interested to see what Durst would do with them.
Unfortunately, the scavenger hunt only lasted about a third of the book (maybe even less), and the plot devolved from that point. On her quest to find the Ivy Key, Lily discovers that Princeton is the gateway to a magical realm, another Princeton populated by a bevy of magical creatures including dragons and various were-animals. The rest of the book involves Lily's interactions with the orange-haired boy and the graduates who assigned her the test, her explorations of the magical Princeton and its denizens, and several (and I mean several) revelations about her own family (including her mentally unstable mother).
It could have been interesting, but it's mostly just messy. The plot points are thrown at the reader rapidly without much fleshing out. There's certainly something to be said for a fast-moving plot (I'm a huge fan when it's done well), but it still needs to be written convincingly. Durst didn't make me believe in her story, and as a result I couldn't get lost in it. There's too much going on. There's also a fairly pedestrian love triangle that is so underdeveloped I wish it weren't there at all. (This love triangle does bring us some monumentally cheesy lines about soul mates and the like - perhaps my younger self would not have rolled her eyes as I did a few weeks ago when I read the book.)
I think the story would have been so much stronger if Durst had weeded out a few of the stray plot points and concentrated her efforts on fleshing out the central ideas. The story would have been simpler and there would have been a lot fewer "oh my gosh!" moments, but the characters and setting would also have been given more time to shine. Sometimes simplifying a book's plot can make it a more complex read in terms of character or theme.
My other main complaint is that the other Princeton wasn't developed enough for my liking. I'm a hardcore fantasy lover and read it almost exclusively as a teenager - I demand a lot from my magical worlds. Other readers may not be so demanding and may actually appreciate a lot less world-building in their fantasy novels (those weirdos...I kid, I kid). It didn't help that one of Lily's first sights when she's in the magical Princeton is of dragons flying over a playing field. From then on, other Princeton looked like Hogwarts to me.
Enchanted Ivy had a lot that appealed to me as a student. I would have grabbed this title my junior year of high school when I was feeling the pressure about getting into the good colleges (and I wasn't even applying to places like Princeton). There aren't enough books that talk about the college experience, and while Lily isn't really a college student yet, at least she's on a college campus, so we're halfway there.
I can appreciate what Durst was trying to do with Enchanted Ivy, but it didn't really pull itself together in the end. I'd recommend the book to teens who are looking for a different sort of fantasy - not your usual paranormal or fairy tale re-telling, but also not something that requires a huge investment in world-building on the scale of a lot of epic fantasies out there today. It's a light read and doesn't take long to get through, but it could have been much better.