What 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
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:
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.