Book Review

What Would Emma Do by Eileen Cook

B-

Title: What Would Emma Do?
Author: Eileen Cook
Publication Info: Simon Pulse December 2008
ISBN: 1416974326
Genre: Young Adult

Book CoverWhat Would Emma Do is a smart, unblinking mixture of “The Crucible” meets “Saved,” with one of the most memorable YA narrators I’ve met in awhile. However, it’s not a romance, so I’m not evaluating it as such. More on that in a moment.

Emma is the only daughter of a single mom in a small

 

Illinois

 

Indiana* town named Wheaton, which is situated exactly in the middle of rural nowhere. Emma really, really hates living there. Her goal is a track scholarship to Northwestern, and she’s not secret about her goals, or her intense dislike of every aspect of her town. She thinks of it as her mom’s hometown, not her own, and is repulsed by the eagerness with which her mom and her friends and all the adults in her life embrace the town’s social culture, which, to Emma, involves being way to involved in everyone else’s business, and being as limited of mind as possible.

* I mistakenly placed the town in Illinois, and the error was totally mine. My apologies to Ms. Cook.

Emma is out one night with her best friend’s boyfriend, Colin, whom she’s known since early early childhood. After a surprise kiss a few weeks prior, their friendship isn’t yet back to normal, but she’s trying to make it so. So is Colin.

When she and Colin sneak out to go to a local hangout – as friends, not to get it on or anything – they find two the popular girls in the middle of a bit of a bender, but the next morning, the story is totally different. Some evil invasion is poisoning the popular girls! One by one they are fainting in school, plauged by a mysterious and dramatic illness! Oh noes! It’s evil! It’s terrorism! It’s a plot! But it’s absolutely NOT the fault of the two young innocent girls. 

Colin and Emma know a totally different story, but neither is willing to speak up, until the entire mess spirals out of control. The hypocritical insanity and hyperventilation of holier-than-thou teens builds through the novel, and Emma finds herself and her own slowly solidifying moral code compromised by that hypocrisy because she doesn’t speak up when she knows the truth.

In the beginning, I thought some of the religious figures and character portrayals are almost too fervent and too over the top to be believed, but after thinking about it, I realized: that was wishful thinking on my part. I’ve seen enough examples of those who are fervent and firmly-entrenched in their belief system to the point of demonizing anyone who thinks differently to know that the surrounding characters might seem outlandish, but they’re not necessarily unreal. They’re also not necessarily bad or evil. They are, however, rigid and threatened by change and obvious difference.

While I know some folks get itchy at the deep point-of-view of first person storytelling, I loved the snarky, sarcastic first-person narration and witnessing the evolution of Emma’s growing self-awareness and feelings of isolation and ostracization.  The story features multiple portrayals of groupthink mentality, especially when the town as a whole is confronted with religious dogma, social pressure, plain old everyday gossip, or someone finally taking the risk to stand up and confront the mob.

And there’s the hilarious narration, like this scene where Emma’s mom finds a calendar under Emma’s bed on which Emma crosses out the days until she can graduate and leave Wheaton:

When my mom is upset, she talks in cliches. If you really want to tick her off, be sure to mention it….

“I do not understand your hatred for this town.”

“Whenever I try to explain it to you, you get mad.”

“I get mad because you’re building castles in the air and don’t have your feet on the ground.”

“Castles in the air?” I asked. Great, now she was starting to sound like the weird seveties ballads she loves. Soon she’d start talking about nights in white satin and horses named Wildfire.

I completely believed that an intelligent high school senior was telling me this story. I trusted her narration and I thought she was hilarious.

There were, however, some things I didn’t like. 

First, and this is a bit spoilerish:

 

there is an ambiguous ending that wasn’t secure enough in the happy future of the heroine, despite my rooting for her and watching her struggle with her own ambivalence and disgust with herself and with the people around her. I wanted to know more that she was ok. Her narration ended too soon.

 

The final scenes are realistic, and hopeful, but I wanted more.

But what really confused me was the disconnect between the cover copy and the story itself:

“There is no greater sin than kissing your best friend’s boyfriend…. especially since she maybe kinda wants to do it again.”

First, the kiss was not at all the primary plot point of the story. If you were expecting a friends to more-than-that plot line, or a romance plot at all, you’ll be disappointed. There are romantic elements to the story, and two potentially marvelous heroes, but in the end, I felt like the cover of the book wanted to convince me that it was a romance, when the contests were anything but.

Here: take a look at a large scale image of the cover:

Book Cover

He’s smiling, they’re half in the bushes, and it looks silly and impetuous. The front cover blurb is, “If you want it that bad, it can’t be good,” and I presume that refers to the kissing—but it doesn’t. Part of the subtext of the book itself is whether Emma can overcome feelings of guilt for wanting things that everyone in the town thinks she’s addled for desiring so badly—things like leaving, moving on outside of town, and discovering the rest of the world outside the county line.

And for that, I have to grade the publisher’s art department and marketing department a D, because the image itself is visually interesting. That’s a great cover image—for a YA Romance. The couple kissing on the cover is enthusiastic, a little awkward, and as a result drew me in. Paired with the blurb about wanting to kiss the best friend’s boyfriend again, well, that doesn’t represent the contents of the book any more than the old skool image of Fabio on the cover of Flowers from the Storm represented the nuanced storytelling inside.

However, the disappointment I felt as a result of the packaging does not detract from the quality of the story. It’s outrageously intelligent, funny, compelling, and thought-provoking. Emma struggles with her attraction to two different guys, but more than that, she struggles with the compulsion to speak up for the truth even if doing so could cost her everything, including her ticket out of Wheaton. Emma tries to have it both ways: fix the wrong without standing up for what’s right. She thinks she can challenge the authority anonymously, without getting her hands dirty and paying the typical and painful social consequences. 

As YA with romantic elements, or YA in and of itself, it’s pretty sharp. It’s a funny, funny book dealing with serious themes and an underlying sadness and lonlieness that will resonate anyone who has at one point realized they are different from the herd. Emma is realizing things about herself, her life, and the limitations of the community in which she lives that I think most people face at one time or another, and her experience is familiar and not always fun to revisit.

Cook is a talented writer, and has a great voice for YA. I just wish the packaging and the marketing better matched the book itself. It’s a solidly thought-provoking story, but folks looking for a romance will be disappointed – though I hope they can look past the mismatch between the cover and the contents to appreciate the contents for their quality.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Mary Beth says:

    If the author’s writing led you to believe Wheaton is in rural IL then I already have a problem with this book. Wheaton is a large suburb 25 miles west of Chicago and can in no one be considered rural. It is the county seat for DuPage County one of the most affluent areas of the nation.

    Just saying.

  2. 2
    CT says:

    You beat me to the punch, Mary Beth! I grew up near Wheaton; it is most definitely not in the middle of nowhere!

  3. 3
    Ashley says:

    surely there is another part of Illinois called Wheaton? so many parts of the U.S. have the same town name.  is it possible that it’s a different Wheaton? or a made-up Wheaton?

  4. 4
    TracyS says:

    60,000 people is the middle of nowhere? Srsly?  My town has 1,800 so I’m not convinced that 60,000 is the middle of nowhere! LOL

  5. 5
    she_reads says:

    I picked this up and looked at it last week and after flipping through decided I wasn’t in the mood for it. I didn’t feel like the cover art was matching the bits I was reading inside, and I’m glad I went with my gut. Your review makes it go on the extended TBR list, and I’m glad you clarified the cover doesn’t match the content.

  6. 6
    Lynn M says:

    Wow, I guess I’m just hopping on the bandwagon. I live about 15 miles from Wheaton, and I can tell you emphatically that it is in no way the type of “small town” where you’d imagine life is like living in a fish bowl. I have relatives who live in tiny, rural towns in southern Indiana where literally everyone knows every single other person in town, and where I could imagine the story that is described in this review could conceivably happen. I hope that the author’s selection of this particular town was just based on a general lack of knowledge about the suburbs of Chicago (Wheaton is a far suburb, true, but plenty of people commute to the city). I wonder if she did what I sometimes do when trying to determine settings which is rely a little too heavily on statistical and population data supplied by websites. Or maybe she’s from the area and views it differently than I do.

    I know I shouldn’t let this little buggaboo dissuade me from reading the story, but I would never be able to get over it. With every mention of the setting, I’d be shaking my head that she’d gotten it wrong. Bummer.

  7. 7
    raj says:

    Same objection here.  Wheaton isn’t a small town in the slightest.  And if she was intending it to be the real Wheaton – possible, given Wheaton College and the Billy Graham Center, and the religion angle of the story – then she’s fundamentally missing a big part of the culture of the suburbs.  None of them are insular.  You may live in one, work in another, send your kids to school in yet another one, and shop there towns over.  Even the small suburbs don’t behave like small towns.

    And if she wasn’t intending it to be the real Wheaton – well, it’s not that hard to check names you make up.  That would bug me a lot if I tried to read this book.

    (As an aside, there is a Wheaton, Wisconsin outside Eau Claire that looks to be slightly more than a wide spot in the road, but Eau Claire’s a long way from Wheaton, Illinois.)

  8. 8
    raj says:

    shop there towns over

    That was supposed to be “shop three towns over.”

    (Dear self: please read before posting instead of after.)

  9. 9
    darlynne says:

    I couldn’t read any further than the Wheaton comment either. Lived there, worked there, churched there. No way is it rural.

    This is the same reason I can’t read the Jim Butcher books: in the very first few pages of book one, he referred to “midtown Chicago” as his location in the city. If he’d said the Loop, if he’d said nearly anything else, we’d probably still be on reading terms, but midtown? Not gonna happen.

    And of course, I should be big enough to let these infractions slide, but with the TBR Pile of Death, there’s really no need.

  10. 10
    Eileen says:

    Thanks for the review.  Just to clarify- the town in the book is Wheaton Indiana. It’s a fictional town outside of Fort Wayne.  I have relatives in Wheaton IL- I stole the town name because I liked it, but placed it in another state so I could create the town I wanted.

  11. 11
    plaatsch says:

    For shame, SB Sarah! I grew up in Ohio (not Iowa or Idaho or even Wyoming) and seem to remember there being a difference between Indiana and Illinois. ;) It makes a lot more sense as Indiana!

    Anyway, being from semi-rural Ohio (though a college town, so not as insular as typical small town), I now have an urge to read the book.

  12. 12
    EmmyS says:

    Darlynne, I’m having the same problem! I love urban fantasy, and someone told me I should try the Dresden books. I’m currently stuck halfway through the first just because I can’t get past “midtown” Chicago!

  13. 13
    SB Sarah says:

    OH CRAP MY BAD. I completely goofed—and I apologize to Eileen Cook. Correction above coming in a moment.

  14. 14
    Serena Robar says:

    This book was witty, clever and beautifully written.  I am a huge fan of Cook’s writing.

    I hate to see good authors get screwed by their cover (a thing no writer can control) and its too bad such a smart story was marketed as a YA romance.  Even my local B and N put it on the YA romance table. Its as though marketing was tired that day and just wanted to get out of the office early for a long weekend when they said, “Screw it, we’ll market it as a romance cause teens love romance and we can go home early. They’ll never know the difference.”  Jackasses.

    This is the second time Ms. Cook has been screwed over by the cover gods. Her first book, an adult romance comedy entitled Unpredictable missed release date because stores refused to carry the fud-ugly cover that marketed gave it.  It ended up being pushed back a WHOLE YEAR and still given a new cover because of that fiasco.  Then RT wouldn’t even rerun the review featuring the new cover when it finally released. BTW it earned 4 and a half stars

    Pick up What Would Emma Do? just because its a smart and savvy read. Cover be damned. And if your in the mood for romance? Order Unpredictable as well.  It’s a damn good read as well.

  15. 15
    Jill says:

    I regret that the Wheaton, IN local put some readers off WWED. If you are looking for cover accuracy -the kiss took place in the middle of a mall.
    If you judge WWED (and Unpredictable) by the contents I know you will find excellent reads.
    Thank you Sarah and Serena for your comments.

  16. 16
    Mary Beth says:

    Thanks for the correction- now I won’t need to spaz about the location any longer. Phew!

  17. 17
    Lynn M says:

    Color me corrected, too! Like I said, I have relatives that live in small-town rural Indiana, so setting the story in fictional “Wheaton, IN” would be perfect IMO to convey a place where everyone knows everyone’s business, no secrets are kept, and religion plays a very heavy role in guiding the actions of the people who live there. I’ll put this book on my list to check out next time I’m at the bookstore – the premise does sound intriguing. Not to mention it’s a double read – I might like it as well as my daughter.

  18. 18

    Awesome Article, Really very informative posting which provide lots of informative in all the regards.thanks for the wonderful posting.

  19. 19

    This story like “Veronica decides to die” by Paulo Cohelo. Similar young girl lives in the little town. All citizens hate each other. And one day Devil visits this town and propose to her and citizens few bricks of gold for murder…
    Interesting story /imho

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