REVIEW:  Elite by Rachel Van Dyken

REVIEW: Elite by Rachel Van Dyken

Dear Ms. Van Dyken:

I’m not really sure how to say this, so I’m just going to come out with it: the following isn’t going to be pretty. Before this year, according to my reading log, I hadn’t given an F to a book since 2006, when I gave FOUR Fs (a bad reading year, to be sure) – three to romances that I really don’t remember any more, and one to Augusten Burrough’s repulsive “memoir” Running with Scissors, which I sadly remember all too well. I did give an F to a book I read earlier this year, a YA that Amazon was offering for free that I later realized was self-published, and which I found so amateurish and histrionic that I felt like reviewing it would be akin to kicking a puppy. A very, very bad puppy.

Which brings me to Elite. This book appears to be professionally published; the author has an extensive backlist. Yet this is one of the most absurd, unrealistic pieces of writing I’ve ever read. I feel horribly snobbish saying, “How in the world did this get published?”, but…how in the world did this get published?

From the first lines of the prologue, I sensed I was in trouble:

Whoever told me life was easy – lied. It’s hard. It sucks. The crazy thing is – nobody has the guts to admit the truth.

Elite by Rachel Van DykenSo, okay: someone (she doesn’t remember who!) told the narrator that life was easy. Is that a thing people say? “Life – it’s a cakewalk, right?” That is not a thing that people say. Also, anyone who thinks that nobody has the “guts” to own up to the Secret Truth that life is, dun dun dunhard – hasn’t spent nearly enough time with a mopey adolescent. Or co-workers on a dreary Monday morning. Or me at Whole Foods on Labor Day afternoon (sorry, just had PTSD flashbacks).

Anyway, our story:

Trace Rooks is an 18-year-old farm girl from the earnest plains of Wyoming (seriously, girl LOVES her cows) who has won a scholarship to Eagle Elite (although the way it’s described it sounds more like a lottery, maybe?) which is the most…well, elite and exclusive college in the United States. Her grandfather, who raised her along with her recently deceased grandmother, drives her to a school that closely resembles a fortress, and after a tense encounter with some campus toughs who come off menacing in a vague but silly way, he drops her off and she is on her own, just a small-town farm girl who has (unbeknownst to her) been thrown to the wolves.

There is so much wrong with the description of Eagle Elite that I don’t know where to start. Perhaps the first thing is that it’s maybe, maybe vaguely believable in a “suspending a LOT of disbelief” way, as an elite prep school. As a university, nothing about its description bears any resemblance to reality. Particularly as a university that produces the best and brightest – future presidents and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

First of all, again the school is described like a smallish fenced-off fortress, not a sprawling campus home to thousands of students, with the attendant nearby businesses that would service such a population. Even the smallest elite colleges in the U.S. have well over a thousand students.

Then there is the lottery/scholarship Trace wins – as a college student she should/would have applied to any number of schools and applied as well for available scholarships and financial aid. She wouldn’t be a single “charity case” who the school takes on sight unseen because her name got picked out of a hat.

Also, Trace is referred to as “new girl” and everyone seems to know that she’s new and an outsider/charity case. So, this is a college that has one new student in its freshman class. Okay, then. Also, a bell rings between classes.

Even the name “Eagle Elite” does not exactly scream “prestigious institute of higher learning.” In every way the school reads like a fantasy prep school; I don’t know why the author didn’t just make the characters younger to fit that scenario (though I have some ideas; more on that in a moment).

Trace is bewildered by her new surroundings and by the hostility of her classmates, particularly Nixon. Nixon is a member of the “Elect” who rule the school, and there are numerous rules relating to dealing with the Elect. Don’t speak to one of them unless spoken to, don’t make eye contact; it’s like being a production assistant for Barbra Streisand. Or perhaps attending a highly fictionalized prep school (if you thought I was going to give up on hammering that point home, think again).

So, Trace is in trouble with the bizarre and capriciously cruel Elect pretty much immediately, for breathing the same air as they do or something. Usually in the types of books where plucky young female newcomers are snubbed and abused by the snooty elite, the abusers are female. Making them male makes it feel even ickier and more sinister, and makes me wonder at the fact that most of the Elect (including Nixon, who is, of course…sigh…our hero) are actually supposed to be good guys. Or at least anti-heroes? I don’t know. The whole thing is already so bizarre to me – the world that’s created does not resemble the real world and the people don’t act like real people – that I find it hard to know what I’m supposed to think about the characters.

It gets worse. Trace at least finds an ally in Monroe, her roommate, who is Nixon’s sister (I look forward to being introduced to their siblings Van Buren and Eisenhower). She’s pretty much the only other character in the book who is remotely likable. Or maybe I should say the ONLY character, since I didn’t actually like Trace that much. But anyway, Monroe takes Trace under her wing and runs interference for her with her awful brother. Despite this, Trace is mercilessly abused by the other students. One of the Elect slips her a mickey at a party and puts her in bed with a football player in the guys’ dorm (of which there is only one, I guess? Sort of like a prep-okay, I’m not even going to say it this time). She wakes fully clothed and clearly nothing happened, but that doesn’t stop all of the other students from branding Trace a whore. At one point they form a gauntlet and pelt her with eggs while chanting “slut” and “whore.”

All of this happens, by the way, because Nixon, who has offered Trace some ephemeral “protection”, spitefully withdraws the offer after she stubbornly says she doesn’t need it. He wants her to come crawling to him and admit she needs him.

Anyway, after the egg-throwing incident, there is more weirdness and absurdity when Nixon takes Trace shopping. See, her stuff got ruined in the egg attack, including her phone, bag, and uniform. Yes, they wear a uniform at this…university. The shopping trip involves the entire Elect and a security detail that would rival the Pope’s. The many guns of their entourage, as well as Nixon’s over-the-top reaction to the necklace (an heirloom from her grandmother) that Trace is wearing, strike Trace as odd, but her curiosity is rather muted given the bizarreness of the goings-in. Of course, she’s clearly used to bizarre goings-on at this point, but one would think that they these odd occurrences would give her pause. Or that she might be more than mildly curious about the deference that Nixon receives virtually everywhere he goes when they are out and about.

It turns out that…

Spoiler (spoiler): Show

Nixon is a mafia boss. Yes, a 20-year-old (or so; I think he’s supposed to be 20 or 21) mafia boss. Also, Trace is from another mafia family; her parents were killed in some sort of mafia war and her grandfather (also a mafia boss, turned Wyoming cow farmer) and grandmother went underground to protect her. Her grandfather has furthermore put Trace back out in the world as bait, which made absolutely no sense to me, given his previous protection of her, in an attempt to get to the truth as to who was behind Trace’s parents’ murders.

I don’t know what being a Mafia boss entails in the world of Elite, but it doesn’t seem much like the real-world mafia (I know, shocker). At one point Nixon says of a Mafioso from a rival family, “I have no doubt that family is into some shady business….probably the sex trade, cocaine, money laundering, typical things you’d see on TV, but definitely not what this family is about that’s for sure.” When Trace asks Nixon what mafia-type things he does, he replies, “A little of this and a little of that. Nothing too illegal. We aren’t desperate for money unlike some people.”

I just…gah. I’m not sure what to say about that. I’m not sure why you’d make your hero a mafia boss (a 20-year-old mafia boss!) if you weren’t going to have him participate in actual mafia-like behaviors. What is the point? And what does a “little of this” that’s not “too illegal” entail? Pirating Disney films? Stealing cable? Not reporting the income from lottery scratch-off tickets?

What I found odd and interesting (I guess?) is that given the information in the spoiler above, what we have is a YA in which the protagonists are ostensibly college students, but are in a setting that much more closely resembles high school (their maturity level was consistent with high-school age kids, as well). Yet Nixon, at least, is apparently professionally in the position of man decades older. It’s just strange. Besides being further evidence of the book’s very loose connection to reality, it felt like an attempt to kind of have it both ways – to have YA characters and situations but give the characters (especially the hero, a term I use loosely here) the gravity and, for lack of a better word, glamour of adult lives.

In this, I feel that Elite is doing something that a lot of the YAs and NAs that I’ve read lately do – they take young characters but give them adult concerns – whether it be addicted parents, dead parents, responsibilities for younger siblings, serious illnesses, dealing with sexual assault, etc. All those themes can be interesting, but sometimes I just wish I could read an NA that takes a relatively young couple, gives them relatively normal concerns, and yet somehow still manages to create a story with enough weight to make their youthful concerns interesting. I consider myself the Queen of Angst, so it feels strange to say this, but there you have it.

Nixon is a parody of a BMOC/alpha-male hybrid – super-cocky and obnoxiously full of himself, though he has a weird aversion to being touched, an aversion that hints at a Dark Past. Trace is supposed to be spunky but is mostly just really annoying, and also kind of stupid. As a couple they are insipid and dull. Nixon refers to them as “Romeo and Juliet” at one point but the only trait they share with that couple is immature stupidity. Nixon: I will have to be mean to you so no one knows I care but I really do care; it’s for your own good. (Is mean to her.) Trace: Why is he being so mean to me!? Does he hate me!? Um, do you remember what he said two pages ago? I mean, it was dumb but it wasn’t like he wasn’t speaking English and using short, declarative sentences.

I’ve been meaning to comment on the ubiquity of the word “smirk” in the YAs and NAs I’ve been reading. Since Elite is a particular offender, now is as good a time as any to bitch about it. The words “smirk” or “smirked” appeared 37 times in the course of the book. Why do NA authors like this word so much? I feel like Inigo Montoya, with the “that-word-doesn’t-mean-what-you-think-it-means.” I mean, I see “smirk” as being a negative word, maybe occasionally used in the context of friendly teasing, but mostly, as Merriam-Webster states, indicating a “smug or affected smile”. YA and NA authors of the world, please cut back on the smirking.

In summary, this book was ridiculous. Not fun-ridiculous (at least not for me) but weird-ridiculous. The situations and scenarios bore no relationship to real life situations and scenarios as I understand them or have experienced them, and the people frequently did not act and react like I would expect normal human people to. My grade for Elite is an F.



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