Review: The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes

The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes. Candlewick, 2012. Currently Available.

Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Face Value: Surprisingly good. With a title like this one, there is a pretty serious potential for some egregious cover crimes, like girls in fancy dresses or sparkly crowns. But instead we get an endless expanse of fields, with blue sky and just a glimpse of the girl in the rearview mirror. Normally I don’t like disembodied images of girls faces or bodies on a cover, but because it actually just shows what you might normally see in a rearview mirror it reads as very intentional and aesthetically pleasing.

Does it Break the Slate? Paige falls into the category of emerging Slatebreaker – she’s definitely not defying expectations or taking the world into her own hands at the start of the book. But, as we would hope, we see her grow up throughout the book, to grow into herself and who she wants to be, and starts taking action to both fix things that have gone badly and to become the kind of girl she wants to be.

Who would we give it to? This is another contemporary realistic YA that will resonate with fans of If I Stay and the like. It’s thoughtful, with believable teen characters, and a good balance of emotional growth, engaging supporting characters and a reflection on the political landscape.

Review: This book was a lot more complicated than I originally expected – in a good way. From the description I expected a poignant but familiar narrative about drunk driving and guilt and putting one’s life back together after a horrible incident. That is sort of what this book is about, but it goes a lot deeper in the end, which is awesome. At the start of the book, Paige is returning from a disappointing summer working as a nanny in Paris. Her mom shipped her off to get her out of town because of what happened in the spring – she and her two best friends were in a car accident while they were all drunk. Everyone survived, but they are all reeling from the aftermath both physically (Lacey nearly lost her leg) and emotionally. When Paige returns, nothing is the same between her and her friends, her boyfriend, her family. As she gears up to run for Homecoming Queen, she also finds herself in a creative writing class that challenges her to think differently about who she is and what she wants.

I think this might be the only example I can think of in YA lit where a tragic drunk driving accident at the heart of the story doesn’t result in anyone’s death. I think this was a great choice for this story, because (while obviously, the girls could have died in this scenario), a death adds an extreme layer of guilt and tragedy that wouldn’t have let the book be about anything else – it would have seemed frivolous and insignificant. The accident is still life-changing, and devastating for all of them in different ways. And I’m not saying tearjerker death books are always bad. But it was a relief to not get caught up in overwhelming sadness and actually get to engage with Paige’s emotional journey, both big and small scale.

As I was reading the book I did not always like Paige, but I definitely believe she earns her Slatebreaking status in the end. At the beginning of the book, and on and off throughout it, she is kind of bratty and definitely selfish and self-pitying. But M. Molly Backes has crafted a really interesting story about this somewhat entitled princess who has to contend with the fact that she might not want the things she always thought she wanted. The accident might be the inciting incident, but this book is much more about Paige’s transformation than it is a PSA about drunk driving. While still, you know, driving home the point that the latter is not a good idea.

I’m predisposed to like any book where participating in the creative process helps a character figure out who she is, and I thought that Mr. Tremont’s writing class was really well written. It was believable too – not overly vague or sentimental in the description of the writing exercises, and not magical in the way writing helps Paige get through everything. Instead we see the class, and writing become a meaningful tool for Paige’s growth into a Slatebreaker.

This is Paige’s story, but Backes has created a really well-realized cast of supporting characters that gave an extra level of depth to the story. Shanti and Ethan, who she connects with through her creative writing class, are way more interesting than your standard “geeks with heart who teach our princess that there’s more to the world by being unique” characters. The contentious relationship between Paige and her sister Miranda goes beyond surface level comparisons and gets to a really interesting dynamic. And even Paige’s former friends, Lacey and Nikki are both painted with more depth than your typical mean girl, with identifiable reasons and justifications for the choices they make.

I liked that this book was about more than just the accident, but there were a couple of moments where it seemed like the Big Issues being brought to the table weren’t able to be fully addressed in the length of the book. In particular, we get a dramatic backstory about Ethan’s family, that is introduced and then dropped. And I would have liked more depth surrounding Mr. Tremont’s story. But overall, I really liked this book. It challenges us to think about people with complexity and thoughtfulness and it does so in a compelling story that mostly avoids melodrama. Totally worth a read.

Reviewed from library copy.

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