500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario
Title: 500 Words or Less
Author: Juleah del Rosario
Genre: YA Contemporary
Topics: High school, romance
Triggers: Grief, bullying
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publishing Year: 2018
Pages: 384 pages
Format Read: E-Book (Galley)
My Rating: 3/5
When I read the blurb for this book for the first time I was immediately intrigued: a YA novel in verse about a high achieving student in an ivy-league obsessed school who attempts to salvage her reputation after a scandal by writing her classmates admissions essays? Yes, please. Drama among high achieving high school or college students has always been a particular literary catnip of mine (Try to Freud that one out) and after the recent release of some incredible YA novels in verse like The Poet X and The Same Blood I was ready to be blown away by more powerful poetry. This novel however differs from these books in almost every way, in style, content and emotional impact and while in the latter category I found it to fall short of it’s peers, it still delivers an engrossing and touching if slightly familiar message to high school readers on the importance of looking past one dimensional labels.
Summary: Nic Chen refuses to spend her senior year branded as the girl who cheated on her charismatic and lovable boyfriend. To redefine her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates, Nic begins writing their college admissions essays. But the more essays Nic writes for other people, the less sure she becomes of herself, the kind of person she is, and whether her moral compass even points north anymore.
Let me start with my conclusion: My overall impression of this book was a positive one. The characters are complex and flawed and undergo growth throughout the story in a way that feels authentic to a cohort of high achieving, privileged high school students. The verse is clear and direct in a way that lets the story flow naturally and feels accessible to readers who are new to YA novels in verse (I would count myself among this number). Most importantly, the themes that it touches upon like pressure (parental, peer and self imposed), status, grief, bullying, slut shaming and racism to name a few are very pertinent to its target reader audience and handled in a way that is thoughtful and nuanced. The book’s central theme of the importance of looking past the status labels that high school students give each other and themselves like jock and prep is a familiar but poignant one.
The biggest issue for me that kept me from loving as opposed to liking this book was the uneven pacing of the plot. The contrast in tension between the first and second half of the book is quite noticeable. The first half is mainly exposition to set up Nic’s moral conflict and leads up to Nic establishing an essay writing business. The second half resolves many of Nic’s internal dilemmas with her ex and her absentee mother while also throwing in some genuine emotional curveballs that had me turning pages as fast as I could. While this kind of build up is expected in any story, the contrast is so stark that in thus case it is distracting. The excitement in the second half only serves to highlight how comparatively little I was hooked during the first part.
The second elements is a little more subjective and perhaps might have been related to reading this book in a digital formal rather than a physical copy but I did not find the use of verse to particularly enhance the story especially during the first half. While other books in verse are a little more inventive with their formatting which they use to emphasize the emotional impact of particular scenes, this books was fairly conventional sticking to 2-5 line stanzas throughout the most part which did not detract but also did not add much to the reading experience. I felt that you could have simply formatted the sentences into verse and had the same story. In the later half you do get more a sense that you are reading poetry but for a YA book in verse this was a bit disappointing. This does improve in the second half especially when Nic is focusing on her relationship with her mother, the verse becomes much more fluid and powerful although it is still relatively unsurprising.
I do want to highlight some of the aspects of the book that I greatly enjoyed and that I felt Del Rosario nailed. The first is the voice. 500 Words or Less captures the voice and experiences of a teenage girl in a way that feels true to life. Nic’s voice is full of wry humor and subdued tensions in her relationship with her parents, her peers, her boyfriend and her friend all of which feel genuine. True to the subject matter, we do occasionally get pages like:
“If only drinking a pumpkin spice latte
A million hugs,
Everything would be
But what good
Are a million hugs,
When you only need
But hey what would teenage life be like without an eye roll worthy moment or two right?
As good as Nic’s voice was my absolute favorite part about 500 Words or Less is that it includes some drafts of the essays that Nic writes for her peers which I found delightful to read. It is in these essays and were Nic’s empathetic narrative voice and the book’s message shines the strongest. Del Rosario’s message on looking beyond one-dimensional high school labels, on healing and getting back up once you’ve been knocked down, and how sometimes it’s ok to not be ok is if not an original one an important and one well reading through Nic Chen’s perspective.
Read if you:
Are looking to start reading books in verse
Like schoolcentric narratives about high achievers
Enjoy reading essays, letters, etc within the main text
Disclaimer: I was given a free e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of this review. All opinions are my own.