No matter what phase of lockdown you're in, it's that time of year again. College admissions are in the air. Graduation is upon us. And the real-life high school sweetheart team of Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka (affectionately called "Wibbroka") have delivered another fun teen romp that will have former graduates brimming over with nostalgia: “What's Not to Love?”
18-year-old Alison Sanger is an amazing student. Maybe too amazing — the book opens with Alison lying to her mother about having food poisoning so she can take a test on Shakespeare. More than getting good grades, her true motivation is to best her nemesis, Ethan Molloy.
Ethan has gone toe-to-toe with Alison on everything throughout school. They're both honors students (but only one of them can be valedictorian). They both work on the “Fairview Chronicle.” They are co-vice presidents of the senior class. They both hope to get into Harvard. Even down to them both taking driver's ed — the fact that Ethan and Alison seem to always do everything at the same time turned into a competition a long time ago.
Whoever does worse on an exam must do an unpleasant task of the winner's choosing. If someone misses the exam, they forfeit. A competitor may also call "blitz," meaning that whoever beats the clock wins, regardless of grade.
This unfriendly rivalry is so famous that everyone at Fairview knows about it, students and staff. They're even more annoyed by it than Alison. The principal takes matters in hand by asking the duo to co-plan a previous class's ten-year reunion after an alum dropped the ball. As you might imagine, wackiness ensues. Tensions flare. Passion ignites.
Neither one of them expected that last one.
In a twisted way, “What's Not to Love” is a little like “The Hunger Games,” but set in the white privileged world of student government, valedictorians, and Ivy League schools that no one is concerned about affording. Like Katniss with Peeta, Alison is constantly evaluating her own emotions against Ethan's presupposed strategy. Does he feel as unhinged as she after their spontaneous hookups, or is it all part of a master plan to undermine her? Is it true love or devious machination? But it's not an evil Capitol they're fighting against here — the only direct threat to Ethan and Alison's future, safety and success is each other.
While reading this book, I was forced to wonder exactly how healthy this relationship was. Even the main characters and their friends ponder its toxicity. I assumed everyone's intentions in the book were honorable — the authors themselves turned out all right in the end, and I'm incredibly glad for that. But in the Real World, if a young person's mind is filled with doubts as to their sweetheart's motivation, while also plotting mutually assured destruction, they should realize it's a red flag and possibly seek counseling. I'm not sure I'd want my daughter falling for the guy who treated her terribly for years, no matter how inevitable. At the very least, this might be a great discussion question for the book group.
I also wish there had been a bit more about Alison's much older sister Jamie, a young woman whose perfect life fell down around her ears after she broke up with her fiancé and returned home to have a full-fledged quarter-life crisis. Along with her unquenchable desire, Jamie is the other facet of Alison's life that she can't control. Alison is forced to realize that being book smart might not have prepared her for all the lessons life has to teach her — no matter how much she thinks it does.
Wibbroka fans will not be disappointed — “What's Not to Love” is story of soulmates and fiery passion; its short chapters and tight pacing carry the reader along in a whirlwind all the way to the satisfying (and slightly plot-twisty) conclusion. Despite its flaws — which the text itself calls to attention —fans of enemies-to-lovers stories like “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days” will feel right at home here.
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.
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