{Early Review} The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes

The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly BackesEvery now and then, a young adult book reminds me that I am not the target audience for YA authors.

The Princesses of Iowa is one of those books.

However, for the target audience of teen girls and their parents (you know, the people who pay for the books that their teenage daughters read), I’d say that The Princesses of Iowa is the perfect book. Except for ONE MAJOR ISSUE that I address at the end of this review for the sake of emphasis.

I say that because while the book has a lot teenagers can relate to in a non-sugarcoated way, it’s still a message book that parents will like. It’s full of lessons about tolerance, the dangers of drunk driving and the virtues of being yourself, even if you don’t know quite what that is yet.

(If you think that all of these valuable lessons crammed into one book sounds like a long book, you’d be right, as The Princesses of Iowa clocks in at a hefty-for-YA 441 pages.)

The novel opens with a monologue by Paige Sheridan, the narrator, on how lectures from adults on alcohol don’t tell kids nearly enough. There’s lots of,

They should have said this, they should have told us that; they should have said this is how it really happens.

Cut to Paige arriving home to Willow Grove, Iowa just before the start of senior year after a summer in Paris. Not a romantic, adventurous summer, but a summer of miserable baby-sitting exile devised by her mother in the hopes that the embarrassment of Paige’s involvement in a drunk-driving accident the previous spring will be forgotten.

Paige’s dream—nay, her goal—since she popped out of the womb has been to be a princess on the homecoming court, along with her two best friends Lacey and Nikki. To secure her princess nomination, Paige needs to dress in a certain way, act in a certain way and do so with the popular clique, which of course includes her best friends.

Egging her on is her mother, herself a former homecoming queen at Willow Grove High School who is still obsessed with appearing pretty and popular in the community. This obsession extends to the point that she doesn’t allow Paige to wear a sweater on the chilly first day of school because it doesn’t complement the rest of the outfit. (As you can see, Paige’s mother provides another reason why parents will like this book, since they can feel better about themselves as parents in comparison to her. At least I hope so.)

At this point, I turned to my SHO, originally from small-town Iowa just like Paige, for his insight. Having attended a small, all-girls Catholic high school in Buffalo, my homecoming experience is zilch. I was all,

Really? Coordinating outfits with your Mean Girls-lite friends just to secure a homecoming court nomination? Not just that, but a legacy homecoming court nomination? That actually matters to people?! C’mon.

Apparently in Iowa, due to a lack of anything remotely interesting, social hierarchy in high school is everything.

Just thinking about it made my SHO grimace, then sigh in relief as he realized that he didn’t actually have to worry about where to sit in the cafeteria.

Meanwhile, for Paige, things have changed. The car accident has left Lacey crippled, distant, and frequently leaning on her long-time friend, who happens to be Paige’s boyfriend Jake, for support. Nikki, deemed responsible for the accident, is preoccupied with a mission she has termed DIEDD (Don’t let frIEnds Drive Drunk). Paige finds herself increasingly apathetic about her social status, tired of having to maintain a pretense of perfection, and frustrated by the limited scope of her small town.

Enter John Keating-lite, creative writing instructor Mr. Tremont.

(Also, enter my favorite character of the book, Ethan, and his friend Shanti.)

Mr. Tremont is inspiring! He teaches Paige about letting it all go and finding herself with free writing sessions! Ethan and Shanti like to write! Ethan and Shanti think that Paige is the only member of her clique who’s not completely insipid and shallow!

Can Paige let go of the life-long pressure to maintain her elite princess status? Can she do it without alienating her long-time friends? What about these warm fuzzy feelings she seems to be developing for Ethan even though she has Jake? And how is she supposed to deal with her jock friends labeling Mr. Tremont a [insert homosexual slur that I refuse to type out but leads to a significant storyline in the book here]?

From my old ass adult point of view, Paige handles every one of the above situations in the most self-centered, cringe-inducing, stupid manner possible.

This was to the point where I was screeching at my Kindle such phrases as,

None of this B.S. will matter when you go to college next year, Paige!!!

Which is quite possibly the point, since Paige’s actions, while incredibly frustrating, are typical of how teenagers roll: They fuck up. They hate themselves. They (hopefully) learn.

The most poignant part of the novel, for me, is Paige’s realization that her journey towards self-discovery comes at a cost to both herself and others, in the form of her increasing distance from Nikki and Lacey. Friends grow apart, and sometimes events occur to push them apart. But every party feels aggrieved, hurt and confused. Everyone thinks at some point,

Why couldn’t things just stay the same?



Why is my friendship not enough for this person anymore? 

When I moved from Central New York to Portland, Oregon, my life and priorities changed, so I lost a few close friends as a result. Take note, teenagers: This is one thing that will still matter after high school.

My main problem with The Princesses of Iowa (minor spoiler alert), and what knocks the book down from being perfect for the target audience to almost perfect, is in regard to the way the author handles sexual situations.

It could be that she simply did not have the room to cram any more issues into this book. However, there are three situations where sex makes an appearance that serves as a catalyst for other major storylines. In all three cases, the girl is massively drunk. One case in particular is unquestionably attempted rape. This is never acknowledged as such in any way. Sex as a teenage issue never makes any other sort of appearance.

This is a HUGE, GAPING problem in a book targeted towards teenage girls.

If you are a parent, make sure your daughter understands the gravity of these situations in this book and how they are NOT OK. I cannot stress this enough. All of the sexual situations in this book are UNACCEPTABLE.

Otherwise, nod at the lessons, and avoid at all costs being as shallow as Paige’s mother.

FNL Character Rating: The endearing nature of Becky Sproles combined with the infuriating decision making of Julie Taylor.

Publication Date: May 8, 2012 (Candlewick)

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I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley. No compensation or other “goodies” were received in exchange for my honest review.

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