Author: Anna Martin
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Cover Artist: Aaron Anderson
Rating: 3.0 of 5 Stars
Adam Hemlock rules the elite New Harbor Academy. With his mother in Paris, he throws hedonistic, alcohol- and drug-fueled parties for his equally rich, desperately bored classmates. How’s a guy who lives life to the extreme to stay entertained? Take on a challenge, of course, and hope the exhilaration of the play-by-play fallout chases away the indifference. At the big pre-senior-year bash, Adam’s offered a dare—seduce the new kid. Adam initially laughs off the idea but changes his mind when he sees Jared.
Jared Rawell has spent the past two years at a Texas military school, where his father sent him to “pray away the gay.” He sees the academy in more liberal Washington as a chance to start over and achieve the grades he needs to get into an Ivy League school. When a beautiful but terrifying girl offers Jared a deal—don’t sleep with Adam Hemlock and she’ll help Jared get through senior year—he sees no reason to say no. But nothing is as simple as it seems.
With layers of hidden agendas, backstabbing, lying, cheating, drugs, and entitled teenage egos, Jared and Adam must navigate a high school minefield while waiting for the inevitable explosion.
Anna Martin is a good writer. I want to start off with that because the book is a great let-down for various reasons, which led to the OK rating. I enjoyed reading the book because Martin is literate and even elegant in her prose and her dialogue. The story, well, not so much. Right up front as well: this book is no worse, say, than the best-seller star of 2014 “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, another highly-praised mainstream book in which I struggled to find a shred of anything admirable or uplifting.
I almost liked Jared Rawell and Adam Hemlock. I managed to get caught up in their story; the cruelty of the twisted “done deal” of the French title; the emergence of an understanding of the true meaning of love, and how sex is just part of that. But both boys are arrogant and cripplingly self-centered. Their connection to each other changes and evolves through the book; but their perspective on the outside world does not. Entitlement is their worldview. If they weren’t gay, they could be Republicans.
We are meant to sympathize with Jared because he’s survived a year in a Texas military academy where his homophobic dad sent him to de-gay. We are meant to dislike Adam, who embodies the shallow venality of the rich town in which they live. The problem is, Jared and Adam are too much alike. Too pretty, too well built, too much aware of how awesome they are. Adam changes more than Jared, and that I found quite endearing. Sometimes. What detracted from my response to the book was twofold. First, the entire cast of characters is a group of spoiled, entitled rich kids, and while the plot is in theory critical of their callow, petty meanness, no one ever suffers any sort of consequences or learns any sort of life lesson (as in, say, the films “Mean Girls” or even “Clueless”). The kids in this book (who all seem wearily adult much of the time, until they turn into sniveling teenagers) made me think of the kids in the less well written and far more annoying series “Blue Bloods” by Melissa de la Cruz, which involved vampire families in NYC (I know, right? I read them with my teenage daughter, honest)
Secondly, I think the book suffers from what I think of as the Downton Abbey Syndrome. Martin is British, and her understanding of American culture is just a bit off. (In the same way that Julian Fellowes clearly misunderstands American Gilded Age culture, as evinced in Downton Abbey.) Martin creates a fantasy of American rich teenagers that has nothing to do with actual American rich teenagers. She also is clearly not tuned into what it takes to get into an Ivy League School these days. (I went to these most elite of all the American prep schools—none of which are on the West Coast, by the way—and attended an Ivy League school. 30% of my class of 300 went to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. I was a straight-A student at both. I apologize for this snotty statistic, but I have some familiarity with the world of which she writes.)
Not only are these kids spoiled and petty; but they smoke, drink and use recreational drugs constantly, while still maintaining GPAs that will get them into Harvard and Brown. Not bloody likely. Additionally, all of their drugs are provided by the one (spoiled, rich) black kid in the school (who, in spite of it all, is oddly likeable). So, the message is that even in a very rarefied ghetto, it’s the non- white kid who deals? Nothing is made of the fact that the kids binge drink every weekend and drive when drunk. Oh, a few passing references to calling a cab instead of driving, but I’m not even sure of those.
And, while this isn’t really a YA book—all the wrong messages for that, although no one is over eighteen—I was looking for parents. Most of these kids seem to be on their own, even when their parents are not literally absent. Where are Biggie’s mother and father—and doesn’t it bother them at all that their son is the drug dealer for the entire high school community? Is there no blow-back from this? Are all the adults that blind and stupid? (Sorry, I also had two teenaged kids in a huge public high school. We all know what goes on.)
The only parental figures we see are Jared’s neglectful and dissipated 30- something aunt Hadley. She’s nice to him and he’s grateful for her support. (What support?) We do meet Adam’s mother, Juliette—who in fact seems amazing and charming and talented. And who leaves her son unattended in a vast house for months at a time so she can pursue her career. WTF? The fact that she never got over her love for Adam’s father and has never remarried doesn’t really mitigate the fact that she presumes her money can make up for her absence in her son’s teenage formation.
The final insult to injury, for me, is the fact that the crux of the plot is Jared’s virginity. Not his innocence, but only his untouched teenaged boy hole. Both Adam and Jared are “committed tops.” How can one be a committed anything at eighteen? Frankly, I have no truck with anyone who’s a committed top at any age (my issues, sorry); but for teenaged gay boys who clearly have been having sex for years AND ARE STILL ONLY EIGHTEEN, this really creates a hurdle for the reader’s ability to empathize with their gradual discovery of the joys of bottoming.
This would make sense if they were, say, 25 and had some adult experience of Oddly enough, Martin makes many of the scenes between Jared and Adam tender and touching. The most convincing and real part of this book is their emerging feelings for each other and their evolving relationship. The sad thing is that this authentic, emotionally rich aspect of her novel is buried in a very strange and unsympathetic world of opulent unpleasantness. The quotation that sums up all of this book’s problems for me is from Jared
“He didn’t go for the hard drugs, hating the comedown after, but didn’t judge those who did. It was their lives. Their bodies.”
And then this quote from Adam:
“I’ve been like this since I was a kid, Jared. I really am an a**hole. I don’t know how to be anything else.”
I guess I’m just a judgmental person. Self-destructive substance abuse is not a good choice. Acknowledging that you have personality problems is not the same as correcting those problems.
Being rich is no excuse. Being beautiful is no excuse.
I would like to thank the publisher for providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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