Book Review: 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario
A high school senior attempts to salvage her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates by writing their college admissions essays and in the process learns big truths about herself in this mesmerizing debut novel-in-verse, perfect for fans of Gayle Forman and Sonya Sones.
Nic Chen refuses to spend her senior year branded as the girl who cheated on her charismatic and lovable boyfriend. To redefine her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates, Nic begins writing their college admissions essays.
But the more essays Nic writes for other people, the less sure she becomes of herself, the kind of person she is, and whether her moral compass even points north anymore.
Provocative, brilliant, and achingly honest, 500 Words or Less explores the heartbreak and hope that marks the search for your truest self.
There is something so satisfying about a novel in verse that is done well. To be honest, they don’t often work for me. I find that my eyes want to skim the lines and I finish in record time, which I like, but feel like I don’t retain a whole lot of what I read. Or, I feel like the story isn’t served well by the structure—like I want more, but can’t get it in this format. Thankfully, neither was necessarily (more on that later) true with this title.
The summary up there does a fairly tidy job of giving you the plot. The plot is a lot more of an internal journey than anything, which is fine by me (for the millionth time I’ll say it—go ahead and close people into a room to talk or put me inside someone’s head while they just think and I’m perfectly happy to keep reading). Biracial Nic Chen is at the top of her class. She’s smart, involved, and has applied early decision to Princeton, but she feels like she’s still not perfect enough for her dad and stepmom. She’s also constantly whispered about at school, her locker defaced with the word “whore” on it, feeling totally lost without her lifelong friendships with Jordan and Ben—friendships that fell apart when Jordan and Nic, who was dating Ben, slept together. But Jordan doesn’t seem to be suffering the same fallout as Nic—he’s still adored, no one is writing slurs on his locker, and he is still best friends with Ben, who no longer has anything to do with Nic. It’s all fairly lonely for Nic, who doesn’t appear to have many friends. It’s only because she starts writing college application essays for her classmates that she starts to interact more and realize some things not just about her peers but about herself. By writing about their lives, trying to see the world through their eyes and experiences, she also reveals parts of herself. She begins to realize that there are so many versions of herself that she shows and hides. Though she always felt held at an emotional distance by Ben, even when they were dating, she starts to see that she, too, held not just Ben but everyone at a distance. There are some pretty compelling reasons for this, including her mom’s disappearance from her life, but prior to this, Nic hasn’t thought too hard about them. Though Nic started writing the essays as a way to keep her from ruminating on her own life too much, she finds that this is a time in her life to be particularly reflective, especially once Ben reappears and things grow even more complicated with her feelings for him and for Jordan.
The one part that I felt didn’t work for me was a thing that happens about 4/5 of the way through the book, a tragedy that I will avoid talking about here because of spoilers. I will say that it felt like a bit of a tidy/easy way to help both Nic and Jordan come to some realizations about their lives and their futures. It didn’t make me dislike the book, but it felt contrived and kind of like a cop-out. I also wish that we actually got to know the larger cast of characters better—the peers whose letters Nic writes, her friends Kitty and Ashok, and maybe even Nic herself, who holds the reader at a bit of the same emotional distance she grapples with in her life. The interesting plot of writing letters for others, of seeing through their eyes, thus highlighting and revealing Nic’s own loneliness, is an appealing one. A strong if imperfect look at guilt, regret, and forgiveness.
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 09/25/2018
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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