Carolyn Samuels is obsessed with the idea of being popular. She is convinced that the only thing keeping her from happiness is her too heavy for fashion body and not being a cheerleader. Hyperventilating when she gets nervous doesn’t help.
When she is paired for a math project with the girl who tormented her in middle school, Jennifer Taylor, she is sure it is going to be another year of pain. With Carolyn’s crush on Jennifer’s hunky junior quarterback, Brad, her freshman year in high school looks like a rerun of middle school. When Jennifer is the only student who knows why she fell in gym class, Carolyn is blackmailed into doing her math homework in return for Jennifer’s silence.
Jennifer takes on Carolyn as a pity project since she can’t be seen with someone who dresses in jeans and sweatshirts. When Jennifer invites Carolyn to spend the night to make her over and teach her to tumble, Carolyn learns Jennifer’s secret and lies to her own friends to cover it up. Will Carolyn become a cheerleader and popular? Does she continue to keep Jennifer’s secret? Or will she be a target of this mean girl again?
High school is a difficult time in anyone’s life, even for the overly popular. We all struggled with finding ourselves, dealing with bullies, talking to our crush, and so much more. It was a time of discovery and self-awareness and acceptance. And it’s these things that Barbara Ehrentreu has managed to capture so wonderfully in her debut Young Adult novel, If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor.
The story starts out much like you’d expect, a young girl is going off to her first day of high school, surrounded by friends and nervous if her previous mishaps will follow her into her new school. But what’s unique about Carolyn Samuels is that she’s one of those young girls who sees models and actresses and other girls at school with their perfect hair, perfect clothes, and perfect bodies and judges herself based on what she sees. Because she isn’t as skinny as a rail or have blonde hair, she feels as if she’s less than everyone around her, that she doesn’t have any good qualities about herself.
Through the story, we see Carolyn grow and change into someone with self-confidence, but it takes so much for her to reach this place. It all starts when Jennifer Taylor, whom she considered to be her arch nemesis, is in some of her classes and all the problems from the previous year weigh heavily on her shoulders. Through an unlikely friendship, the two teens develop sympathy for each other and grow close. While at first, you think one may have an ulterior motive for doing so, it’s refreshing to find out at the end that the friendship that grows is a true one.
But what would a high school story be if not for bullying, drama, lies, and boys?
This novel seems to have a bit of everything, and while that could sometimes prove to be problematic and cliche, Ehrentreu manages to create a story that is not only rather believable, but one that is like a breath of fresh air. It seems like the unpopular girl always has a crush on the star football player who is dating the queen bee, and in this case, that’s true. However, Carolyn doesn’t get the boy; at least, not in the way you think. And that was a smart choice on the writer’s behalf. Nobody wants to read the same story over and over, and while many of the ideas in the Young Adult genre are very similar, each writer has to take it upon themselves to change them and make them unique.
Getting into the story itself is a little difficult at first as the dialogue can become heavy at times. Added to that, the voice of the narrator seems to change when going from inside her head to when she’s speaking with her friends. The narrator that you come to know is well-spoken for a teen, but her dialogue comes off rather “valley girl,” which is strange considering this story is set in the East Coast. There’s this disconnect there, but it rights itself about a solid third through the story.
The pacing of the story is also shaky at first. It seems to move so quickly through each scene that you feel like you’re not getting all of what is going on, but it slows down near the second half and becomes more comfortable for the reader. Aside from this, there are some confusing parts of just when everything is happening. The story takes place over the span of a year, but it feels like just weeks have gone by as you reach the end of the story.
The development of Carolyn seems sudden, and the fact that she pretty much ditches her friends to spend more time with her old enemy is rather strange and abrupt. We understand the why behind it, but the pacing for this is just a little fast. However, we slowly see her grow a backbone and stand up for herself and talk to those she would normally avoid, which I think was handled very well.
If there was one thing I wanted more of from this story it would be more of the side characters, Becky and Janie. We see glimpses of them, but they’re just superficial at best. We don’t see their motivation, or their importance. Yes, they’re there for Carolyn as supporting friends, but if they weren’t in the story, there wouldn’t have been much of a change in the tale.
But perhaps the mot important thing that this book has to offer is the insight into the pressure faced by the popular kids. Jennifer Taylor, the beautiful cheerleader with the football player boyfriend, the girl with the wealthy family. On the surface, her life is perfect, but underneath, she’s hiding a devastating and debilitating secret. She’s bulimic. This disease isn’t usually handled with such care and understanding in most teen novels. It’s either something so disgusting and revoting and shameful, or it ignored and not addressed at all. The author has managed to draw attention to the issue with sensitivity, and shows just how powerful this disease can be. The detail and the emotions that are connected to it speak volumes, not only about the character, but about the difficulties that come with not only personally dealing with it, but helping the person who has it.
I think that for any young woman who is just starting off high school or those who love the Young Adult genre will find that this novel, while not perfect, provides a true description of the high school experience and what the different types of people go through and how they cope. It’s a coming-of-age story, with friendship, drama, and budding romance rolled together to create a unique experience.
This is one book I would definitely recommend.
[Disclaimer: I received a free digital copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.]
Rating: 4/5 Stars