Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Book Review: FAKING 19 by Alyson Noël

When discussing young adult novelist Alyson Noël, the bestselling Evermore, first in the Immortals series, generally comes to mind, but since 2005 Ms. Noël has also created a sizeable list of contemporary fiction, including books like Cruel Summer and Saving Zoe. Though it has been four years since her debut, Ms. Noël’s first published novel, Faking 19, is still, in my opinion, worthy of attention.
While reading Faking 19, I was reminded of the classic Fox drama, The O. C.—and for good reason. Ms. Noël’s novel is centered in her hometown of Orange County, California—Newport Beach, to be precise—which is exactly where the television series took place. With its rich-kid drama, somewhat mature themes, and adventurous attitude, the novel was very reminiscent of Josh Schwartz’s television series, and that’s a major compliment when coming from me, an unashamed O. C. addict.
The book tells the story of Alex, a seventeen-year-old nearing the end of her senior year—or so she hopes. Alex, a former Honors student, has let her grades plummet, and the book begins with a meeting in the guidance office where Alex learns she may not be able to graduate. Despite the fact that Alex makes several promises, to her guidance counselor and herself, concerning her future, she is frequently drawn away from her studies by M, her picture-perfect, skinny, blonde, California Princess best friend. Though M (the novel’s biggest mystery might be her real name) seems to disapprove of her friend’s failing grades, she doesn’t hesitate to take Alex along on trips to LA, where they pose as nineteen-year-old college students in order to get into clubs and hip parties.
But Faking 19 isn’t the story of two rich kids on a road trip. Though she lives in the sunny suburbs, Alex and her mother are struggling financially (and this is pre-recession, so God bless them now), and Alex’s father seems to spend all of his money on his new girlfriend’s breast implants. Alex finds it hard to keep up with M, who swipes her daddy’s credit card every chance she gets. She is convinced that M’s life is perfect and positive that her own sucks. However, it looks like things are brightening up when she and M meet some British hotties in the trendy part of LA.
Alex’s narration is inexplicably charming. Though she criticizes the vapidity of her surroundings, she also indulges in some of the materialism. Rather than making the reader detest her hypocrisy, however, Ms. Noël manages to secure an affection and sympathy for Alex. She rambles and swears and is often self absorbed and self pitying, but she sounds like a real teenager. Props must be given to Ms. Noël for handling this task gracefully where other authors (I won’t name names, but you know who I mean) often appear to be trying too hard.
While Alex is a strong character, however, the male lead, Connor, is not. I wondered at several points if the reader is supposed to like Connor as much as Alex does. Yes, he is handsome and British (which is normally enough for me, but still…), but that is really all you learn about him. He likes music, and he has decent taste, but there are no quirks, no character development, and not even a trace of the witty banter that might have made up for this. Yet, by the same token, M stands out. She is the typical, stereo-typed cheerleader, but there is something about M that sets her apart. Despite her flaws—and there are many—it is almost impossible to hate M merely because Alex herself can’t hate her. Though there are many points when M deserves a good bitch slap, something about her relationship with Alex is touching. So why, I must ask, is Connor so two dimensional? Was this intended? If so, I must question Ms. Noël’s judgment on that aspect.
If you hate name dropping—but let’s admit it, we all kind of love it—then Faking 19 may not be the book for you. Alex mentions celebrities quite often as she narrates, and she has a special fetish for Richard Branson. Most of the references are still modern, but a few have missed their day. A supposed sighting of Brad and Jen, for example, reminds us that this was written before the Brangelina baby fest. This much is forgivable, however, since the references to Paul Rudd, Hugh Grant, and Madonna are not quite as dated.
Also, Ms. Noël should be praised for her candidness on the subject of sex. Unlike many modern heroines, Alex thinks about sex quite often. She is anxious, if not outright eager, to lose her virginity, and her narration of the subject is certainly not PG, like many YA novels of our time. The novel is most definitely intended for older teens due to the graphic nature of Alex’s wording. (Warning: blow jobs are referenced.) But, as a seventeen-year-old, I can honestly say that her thoughts—from concerns about the pain to contemplating the proper underwear choice—are humorously realistic.
Faking 19 will not be a classic, and it probably won’t be made into a movie. But it is a quick, entertaining read. Each chapter is fast paced, and each scene adds to the plot. Believe it or not, Faking 19 even manages to carry a valuable life lesson, though I won’t spoil that since I hope you’ll grab a copy of the book and discover it for yourself. I must admit, as I shut the book I found myself wondering where Alex is now, four years later, and what kind of adventures she and M might be having today.
With a debut as funny, touching, and utterly enjoyable as Faking 19, there can be no doubt that Alyson Noël is an author to watch in the coming years, and I have a feeling she’ll keep getting better.
4/5 stars


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