REVIEW: Wild Cards by Simone Elkeles
Dear Ms. Elkeles,
Despite being a diehard fantasy and paranormal reader, I find myself gravitating more and more towards contemporary YA novels these days. Something different, I guess, that won’t flounder in my jaded eyes. I’ve been aware of your novels for a while but I’ve never picked them up. When I heard you were starting a new contemporary YA series, I decided now would be a good try to remedy that.
When a prank gets Derek Fitzpatrick kicked out of boarding school, he has no choice but to move with his young stepmother back to her childhood home. This is Derek’s worst nightmare. California is his home. What is he supposed to do in Illinois?
To further complicate matters, Derek is attracted to his stepmother’s younger sister, Ashtyn. (I said his stepmom was young, didn’t I? Derek is a 17-year-old guy with a 25-year-old stepmother. Awkward.) But Ashtyn already has a boyfriend, the quarterback of the football team, for which she also plays as kicker. The relationship with her boyfriend already on the rocks, Ashtyn shares the attraction but refuses to give into it. She likes serious, dedicated boys and Derek is anything but that. But when her boyfriend betrays the football team out of spite, it turns out Ashtyn may act on her feelings after all.
I can’t help but wonder if step-relative romance is on the rise? Kody Keplinger’s Midsummer’s Nightmare features a romance between two step-siblings, though I’d argue any potential squick was negated by the fact the couple met before they discovered their new sibling relationship. And while I didn’t find the idea of Derek and Ashtyn as a couple squicky either, I did think the step-aunt/step-nephew thing should have been played for more laughs amongst Ashtyn’s friends. It just didn’t seem believable people wouldn’t mock that. It’s a pretty ridiculous turn of events, after all.
I liked that Ashtyn was a multidimensional character. She loves playing football and works hard at it, but she’s not a tomboy. She likes dressing up and going out. At least I hope that is the case and not an example of her just doing those things for her jerk ex-boyfriend. I also loved that while her teammates loved her now, it’s acknowledged that she had to work to earn their respect. Female football players are still enough of a novelty that it’s rare a high school team would accept a female teammate with no complaints. We don’t live in that society yet, alas. They’re great, and I’m assuming we’ll be seeing guy pals Vic and Jet as the heroes of their own books in the future.
Both Ashtyn and Derek have past emotional trauma. This should come as no surprise. It’s a familiar set-up. Ashtyn’s mom abandoned them and when her father checked out on the parenting front soon after, she thought the way to win back his affection was to pick up football, a sport he used to play. That didn’t work, but she found something she loved and excelled at. Because people tend to walk out on her, both literally and mentally, Ashtyn desperately seeks out people who will stay. Like Ashtyn, Derek lost his mother but unlike her, his mom is actually dead. (Dead moms again? Really? I should make a tag.) He had an extremely close relationship with her so her loss closed him off emotionally and he now refuses to let himself open up to another person again.
Ashtyn and Derek’s relationship is push and pull, hot and cold. They know they want different things and because those things are incompatible, they shouldn’t get together but they can’t stay away from each other. This aspect actually worked for me but I can see how it’d be frustrating for other readers. Hot and cold relationship portrayals are so subjective.
What didn’t work as well for me was the pacing. Because there’s a football plotline in addition to the main romance plotline, I was keenly aware of time passing and how many pages remained in the book. Ashtyn’s football team very much wants a winning season but when Ashtyn’s boyfriend transfers to play quarterback for a rival high school, they’re left without a QB and all hopes of a winning season are sunk. This kind of premise creates expectations. Like finding a replacement QB who’s more awesome. [spoiler]And while that does happen, we never see the newly formed team play. So that plotline is left hanging. Since this is a series, it makes sense that the quest for a winning season would stretch across multiple books but it’s still jarring to end it here.[/spoiler]
I also think the character arcs are stronger than the romance arc. Maybe that was the point and in many ways, that’s refreshing. It’s great to read about people self-actualizing. But I’m not certain the romance arc is satisfying. It seemed like it was lacking something, and I just can’t put my finger on what that is.
There are aspects of the ending that don’t work as well for me. [spoiler]Ashtyn is a great kicker and much is made of this given her gender in a male-dominated sport, but that fades into the background when it’s revealed that Derek is a genius QB. Of course. And that when Ashtyn’s experience at football camp is a disaster and her interview with the Northwestern coaches doesn’t go so well, Derek saves the day, makes some phone calls, and gets her an athletic scholarship.[/spoiler] I think this was meant to show how much Derek loved her but when so much of Ashtyn’s character is about earning respect from her peers, these things undermine the message.
While I liked many things about Wild Cards, especially Derek’s endearingly bossy grandmother, there were some issues that prevented me from loving it. On the other hand, I now want to read more YA novels featuring athletes — especially female ones. If anyone has recs, I’m all ears. C