Another YA book from my 2009 days that I’ve taken forever to read. Well worth the wait, though: Cracked Up to Be is all it’s cracked up to be, in that it is a ripping good yarn about how high school is a messed up place. Courtney Summers manages to convey some of the issues that some teenagers face without trivializing them or wrapping them up in a neat little bow at the end. In so doing, she crafts YA that’s relevant, authentic, and powerful.
This is the story of Parker Fadley—an awkward name if ever I’ve heard one—who used to be “Perfect” Parker Fadley but is now just “Fadley,” a screw-up verging on not finishing senior year. Once cheerleader captain and most popular girl in school, something happened at the end of last year that caused Parker to slip away. She just wants to become invisible. As the story unfolds from her point of view, we watch her engage with different people—friends, ex-boyfriend, parents and counselors and teachers—trying to push them away like she pushes away the flashbacks that helpfully unpack the fateful night that changed everything forever.
Some of this sounds ominous and vague, and you, with your exposure to Very Special Episodes of nineties’ television, can be forgiven for thinking this seems like the plot of most YA books targeted at teenaged girls. Parker got raped or something, right, and that’s why she maybe-kinda-sorta tried to commit suicide, and now she’s just circling the drain?
I’m not going to spoil the final reveal of what changed at the end of junior year. If you’re paying attention you’ll figure it out quickly enough. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. What’s more interesting is the way in which Summers portrays the failure of the very systems we think are helping adolescents mature and deal with the stress of impending adulthood.
Take school counselors, for instance. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have great admiration for counselors. They have tough jobs. But Parker is flippant and dismissive of her counselor, and for good reason. Summers very accurately captures what I suspect is an all-too-common phenomenon in the interactions between “troubled teens” and authority figures, be they counselors or teachers or parents. In our busy lives, we try to make time for these children, try to listen to them, hear their problems, and advise them. But there are so many barriers in the way preventing us from being as helpful as we could be.
Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that most adults can barely remember what it’s like to be in high school, and that the challenges they faced are different from the challenges teenagers face now. (There is a curious lack of cell phones and bevy of DVD rental stores and payphones in this book, which make me wonder if it’s actually historical fiction set pre-2005ish, because these days kids would be all up in those texts. But Summers doesn’t seem to date anything, unless I missed it.) Grey is ineffectual because she isn’t someone that Parker can trust. Somewhere along the line, we made a mistake that caused Parker and other teenagers like her to feel that they need to clam up instead of open up. And that’s the problem. But because the system dictates that Grey is the one to whom Parker should spill her guts, we arrive at an impasse.
So it’s not just a matter of being “out of touch.” It’s fundamental mismatching and misallocation of resources to shore up what is probably broken from the beginning.
On the social level, Summers also shows us how Parker’s peers react to her changed attitude. I really enjoyed her depiction of the frenemy nature of Parker’s relationship with Becky, as well as the weird kind of wary friendship between Parker and Chris. The way these characters negotiate their lives, both in and out of school, strikes me as fairly realistic (at least, from what little I remember of being a teen at the advanced age of 25). For example:
I didn’t even reread the stupid story and the only memory I have of it isn’t entirely accurate, if I’m to believe Becky, which in this case I do. Still, I’m a fantastic liar in all other aspects of my life, so writing a thousand-word lie should be easy. I can do it. I can do this. As a freshman, I found “The Yellow Wallpaper” to be— Fuck it, I’ll just cry.
Yeah, that sounds to me like something some people would do to get out of having to do an essay. I’m sure some of my students turned on the tears to manipulate me (with varying degrees of success) when I was a classroom teacher.
I love that Summers doesn’t belabour these points, though. Everything comes through naturally in Parker’s voice, so Summers doesn’t have to scream, “Teenagers these days are having lots of sex!” It’s all there, in the subtext—but for a young adult reading this book, it’s plain as day. It is their life.
I mean, I suppose I should mention at this point that I led a pretty charmed life in high school. My reluctance to engage in most social aspects of high school cushioned me from a lot of the issues Parker and her peers face here (sex, dating, alcohol, drugs, etc., just never came up for me). And despite being incredibly nerdy and giving off an intelligence vibe, somehow I was never a target for bullying (or if people did make fun of me, I was just oblivious to it). Hence, I had an extremely privileged time at high school. So I need to recognize that I’m an outlier, and that for most people, the high school experience is sucky to blandly neutral at best.
And there’s a lot of structural problems to the high school experience that contribute to this. These appear in Cracked Up to Be, I’m sure entirely intentionally on Summers’ part, but nonetheless as part of the background—Parker is not exactly a sociology major here, but she is clever enough to understand when the system is trying to play her.
I really enjoyed this flashback:
Chris drags me out to the pool and for the next hour all anyone can talk about is how Perfect Parker Fadley is actually drunk, and then they slap me on the back and they say “way to go” all admiringly, and next thing I know, someone’s pressing a red plastic cup into my hand. And because I start feeling that rush I usually feel when I’ve done something perfectly and everyone knows it, I drink whatever is in the red plastic cup.
And then I get props and another red plastic cup.
I love the idea that Parker falls down this rabbithole because she gets a rush from becoming perfectly drunk. This isn’t just a great example of peer pressure; it’s a stellar description of the stream-of-consciousness sensation of being subjected to peer pressure.
The ending doesn’t offer as much resolution as one might want from a story. But that just seems more realistic: there is no easy answer to any of this, Summers is saying. You can’t slap a bandaid on it and hope it goes away. And because Parker spends the majority of the book hiding the root cause of her self-loathing, she can’t get help until she finally becomes willing to take that step. So while Cracked Up to Be ends on a hopeful note, it’s also a sombre reminder that nothing is certain. There is no guarantee of a happy ending in Parker’s future.
(So maybe we should stop telling girls they can grow up to be princesses and act out a romantic comedy, hmm?)
I probably won’t ever forgive Courtney Summers for sacrificing Bailey on the altar of plot like that. Aside from that, we’re cool, and so is this book, and you should read it, and probably everything else Summers is writing like this. I’ll let you know for sure once I start doing that—hopefully in less than six years.
I reread the tenth anniversary edition of Cracked Up to Be in February 2020, but I did not write a new review because this review is perfect.