Monday, May 23, 2011

Popular by Alissa Grosso

Hamilton is THE it girl at Fidelity High School; sure, Olivia, Zelda, Nordica, and Shelly all think they have a chance to knock her from her thrown, but the fact of the matter is, they don't have a shot. And they never will.

Hamilton's known for her parties, and people are dying to get invited. She posts her guest lists in the school so people can see whether they've gotten her stamp of approval or if they've once again been snuffed. Of course, Olivia, Zelda, Nordica, and Shelly are always invited, but they've noticed that different people have been invited and showing up lately -- people who aren't popular and who aren't members of their elite clique. And it seems that Hamilton's been more and more removed from the parties herself: she's becoming more and more broken up over the fact she'll be graduating soon and need to grow up, make new friends, and create a new name for herself outside of Fidelity. Even her boyfriend Alex can't seem to shake her from her sadness.

That is, until all of the secrets unwind, and we as readers see exactly how all of the characters come to create this clique and maintain their power.

Popular is a fast-paced, engaging read told through multiple narrators. The way it pulled me in reminded me a lot of when I first read Courtney Summers's Cracked Up to Be, and for many reasons, these might make great readalikes. Immediately, you know something is fishy, and you know that things are going to fall apart and do so fast. Grosso's use of the multiple narrators is essential here, and it's a technique that I'm usually skeptical of as a reader. I think she does a good job of delineating each voice, but they're not entirely unique. As a reader, I didn't believe in each of them; however, this is okay. It can't be any other way.

Hamilton is a broken girl: sure she's popular, but clearly there is something much more problematic going on. Most people their senior year of high school revel in the freedoms they will have upon graduation, but Hamilton dreads it. She's so disengaged in her life and so removed from her place at the top of the social hierarchy that as readers, you want to know more. But like any good story about cliques and popularity, you can only get so much, since there are other characters vying for this attention. Much of what we learn about Hamilton comes from her friends, as well as from Alex. In the first half of the story, she's defined through Olivia, Zelda, Nordica, and Shelly; in the second half of the story, Alex defines her.

Beware, though, as this is also not a story about popularity. It's much deeper and much more twisted. This will have appeal to fans who enjoy a little bit of a mystery and a little bit of suspense. Grosso successfully weaves a story told both in the present and in the past, and piece by piece she builds a compelling character study complemented by a plot that's got enough pulse behind it to move the story forward. There's honestly not much that happens in the book, but that's okay. It's a bit of a refreshing read after a number of books that seem to be trying to offer too much in plot and too little in character.

Because I don't want to spoil the mega twist that happens in the story -- the point at which everything in the book comes together and at which all of the small clues dropped in the first part click into place -- I'll say this much and include the spoiler-ridden link: this book does what this book did much, much stronger. Personally, I wasn't surprised in the least of where it went, but it didn't bother me. Where the aforementioned book fails to give me a compelling character, Grosso's Hamilton is so much more engaging (or maybe the word is disengaging) and has much more depth to her story. More than that, it feels more authentic and less like a ploy. Even though I suspected what would happen, it didn't feel like a cheap narrative device but instead was well executed.

My big quibble with the story lies in Alex's narration. I didn't believe him as a male character, as he's a little too emotionally invested in Hamilton. Fortunately, I don't think it's necessary to believe him and I don't think it's necessary to even care about him at all, since his narration comes simply as a way to give us more insight into Hamilton.

Even though some of the writing was a little weak for me as a reader, particularly when it came to dialog that didn't necessarily move the story and didn't always ring true to the teen voice, the appeal on this book is quite high. This is Grosso's debut novel, and she has much opportunity to hone those technical skills, given her story telling ability is already quite tight. Fans of Pretty Little Liars would likely enjoy this one quite a bit, and as I mentioned before, both fans of Summers's first book and fans of the book linked in the previous paragraph will dig this one. I think the appeal for reluctant readers is here, as well, since the pacing is fast and the writing isn't that challenging. There is little in terms of language, drugs, or drinking -- even amid the party threads running in the story -- and I'd be completely comfortable giving this one to a middle schooler. It'll appeal for younger and older teens easily, and it will have wider appeal for girls than it will for guys.

3 comments:

  1. I found this hard to put down. Alissa did an amazing job weaving all these stories together, and I have continued to think of this book long after finishing.

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  2. This sounds sort of fun if not totally original. Maybe something light for this summer?

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  3. After our discussion last week on this one I'll definitely be picking it up!

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