Parker Fadley was perfect. Head cheerleader, best-ever boyfriend, honor roll (with distinction) three years running. But now it’s Parker’s senior year, and she’s been put on a suicide watch. Her grades are in the toilet, she quit the cheerleading team, she broke up with her boyfriend. It’s all she can do to make it to school sober.
She just wants to be left alone.
Enter Jake Gardner, the “New Kid.” He never knew Parker “before,” has no reason to even like her now (she works really hard at making sure he doesn’t have a reason), and yet, he’s strangely attracted to her. It’s work, it’s not fun, but there is a deep, tragic problem here, and he will get to the bottom of it, even if Parker really doesn’t want him to. Because it would be the undoing of everything.
Cracked Up to Be is an interesting novel, though not an easily accessible one. It’s harsh, much in the way Laurie Halse Anderson’s books are harsh: unflinching, dealing with subjects — in this case, mostly it’s about a desire to be perfect and the emotional and psychological toll that exacts on a person — that aren’t usually tackled. There’s a bit of a mystery as well, as the reason why Parker’s fallen off the edge is slowly revealed. What really could have been so bad that she is desperately trying to throw her life away?
But the book is also a tough read because Parker is so incredibly unlikeable. Never once did I like her. I felt sorry for her, and by the end I could understand why she was acting the way she did. But she is not likable in any way, shape or form. She is cruel to those around her — again, it’s something she always was, as is slowly revealed through the novel; her cruelty isn’t a symptom of her desperation — and she is manipulative, using those around her as she sees fit. She cares only for herself, which makes what happened that much more tragic. Yes, there is growth, but — perhaps realistically, which is another reason why it’s so harsh — it’s infinitesimal, with only a glimmer of hope.
Thankfully, there’s Jake. The book is told from Parker’s point of view, but Jake somehow acts as a buffer between Parker and the reader. Because Jake is persistent in his questions and attentions, he is able to get past, albeit slowly, whatever barriers Parker has put up. It’s because of Jake that the story is slowly revealed, that Parker’s terrible secret finally comes to a head. And it’s because of Jake that the story is, ultimately (for me, at least), readable. He’s the breath of fresh air in a very stagnant, very toxic environment.
It isn’t an enjoyable read, on any count. But it did keep me interested and curious to see just what Parker was punishing herself for. It was tragic on so many levels, and yet not depressing. Which is a mark of a good novel. Even if it’s not enjoyable.
Rated: High, for so many reasons: lots and lots of f-bombs, other mild swearing, teen sex, teen drinking. None of it is gratuitous, but it’s all there.