Jul 30 2013
Dear Ms. Taylor,
I admit I have a weakness for Gossip Girl-esque novels, even though they are inevitably about rich, white kids. So when I heard that your debut, Prep School Confidential, was a prep school murder mystery with a Gossip Girl flair, I had to give it a try.
Anne Dowling is the queen bee of her NYC private academy. But when she accidentally burns down part of her school (as you do), she gets shipped off to a Boston-area prep school (as so often happens). It’s awkward being the new girl but Anne couldn’t care less about her new classmates. Instead she finds herself bonding with her new roommate, Isabella — until Isabella goes missing one night and is found dead the next morning.
Concerned for the school’s reputation, the administration effectively puts a hush order on the student body while the murder is under investigation. But the ominous silence holds secrets linked to Isabella’s death, and Anne is determined to unlock them all. Unfortunately, some people would prefer she leave those secrets buried.
I can see why Prep School Confidential evoked the specter of Gossip Girl. There are indeed some mean girl antics. But only some and overall the novel isn’t nearly as over the top. It’s very much a murder mystery with all the hallmarks of the genre: clues, multiple suspects, and red herrings. That said, I’m not sure mystery fans will enjoy this because it’s not very subtle with these elements and lacks that certain finesse I associate with the genre. I realize the target audiences are different, with different sets of expectations, but it’s worth pointing out.
One thing I didn’t quite grasp was why the other students at the prep school were so eager to elevate Anne as their new queen bee. Does that actually ever happen to the new girl? I realize Anne is from the Upper East Side but she herself felt like an outcast at the prep school because her father is “only” a lawyer versus a senator or some other type of dignitary. I just don’t see a tightly knit student body doing this.
Unless, of course, we’re supposed to believe the school is trying to position Anne against the resident wannabe queen bee, Alexis — the daughter of the aforementioned senator. I can see this being the case but I suspect I’m reaching for an explanation. There really isn’t any evidence for this in the narrative. And besides, throwing Anne to the wolves like that? Doesn’t that make her new friends rather terrible?
I was rather unimpressed by the romantic subplot. Anne has two potential love interests: Brent, the boy in her class that every girl wants but can never have and Anthony, Isabella’s twin brother. Despite being the cliché dichotomy of the good boy and the bad boy, I had no problems with the love interests themselves. A rarity, I know. I didn’t even really have an issue with Anne’s wishy-washiness and how she’d swing back and forth between the two. I can buy that.
No, what made the subplot fall apart for me was how it was resolved. One of the potential suitors is neatly eliminated as an option. Too neatly, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong. I dislike love triangles and how pervasive they’ve become in the YA genre. But I don’t like contrivances and the way one love interest was removed from the picture screamed it to me.
Despite these things, I couldn’t help but like Anne. Yes, she’s a privileged screw-up who’s used to charming her way out of trouble. But when that fails, she has to adapt and she does. It’s also hard not to root for someone who wants to see justice done, when it seems like the system has failed.
One thing I would have liked to see more of was more delving into the class differences. Yes, privilege is touched on. Anne easily transferred to an elite prep school after she essentially committed arson, all thanks to her father’s connections. Isabella’s stalker gets off with no problems, all because his father is on the school’s board. But the class differences also play a big role: Anthony’s attitude towards Anne and everyone at her school, and the fact that Isabella attended the prep school on a scholarship and supposedly hated everyone there. There was a lot of potential to delve into this aspect, and that never really happened.
Prep School Confidential is a likeable read that’s a welcome change of pace from all the paranormal and UF fantasy out there. While I personally didn’t think all the elements gelled together well, I can see people being fans of the multiple secrets and revelations laid throughout the novel. It is the first book of a series though, so I will warn that the next book’s mystery is set up in this one, and it’s not the most graceful integration. C+