Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
Published: 2008, St. Martin's Griffin
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Library Book
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The problem with alienating, self-destructive behavior is people get it into their heads it’s a cry for help. It wasn’t.
If I ever am in need of a gut-wrenching read that toys with my emotions, I know that Courtney Summers' books will be able to supply my needs. After having already read This is Not a Test, I began reading Cracked Up to Be with certain expectations; mainly, I expected a gritty, emotional read that explores the inner demons of its protagonist, and this novel certainly delivers.
As a straight-A student, the cheerleading captain, and the girlfriend of the school's quarterback, Parker Fadley pretty much ruled over her high school. Everyone expected great things from her, Parker herself included. If anyone had any concerns over her well-being, it was along the lines of how tightly strung she was. For Parker, perfection was the only option.
But as a senior Parker has undergone a complete change, no longer even remotely similar to the girl she once was. Something has caused her academics to slip, has caused her to sever her relationships with others, and has even caused her to attempt suicide. Now Parker is on the brink of destruction and one misstep away from having to repeat her senior year. Something bad happened at a party last spring, and Parker has not been able to recover from it.
Wow. It's a bit incredible, really, how absolutely cruel and unlikable Parker is. I'm not one of those readers who has to love the protagonist in order to enjoy the series, which is fortunate as I neither liked nor sympathized with Parker. For the majority of the book, the kindest emotion I could muster up for Parker was pity. Pity's not a winning emotion, and yet I found myself thoroughly invested in Parker's story. I wanted - no, needed - to find out what terrible thing had happened that completely closed Parker off from the rest of humanity.
Readers accompany Parker on a deep and sometimes terrifying journey into the inner workings of her mind. At times other characters are given the sense that Parker is beginning to heal from whatever has affected her so deeply. Readers do not get the same reprieve, instead witnessing the discrepancy between her outer words and her inner thoughts. Her behavior is not normal, and at times being in her head is downright scary. Without explicitly mentioning it, Cracked Up to Be explores the heavy toll that emotional trauma can take upon a person. I appreciated that despite the potential to instill a "message" on her readers, Summers allowed this book to strictly be a character study.
Flashbacks are employed periodically throughout the novel as Parker wrestles with her overwhelming guilt and confusion. The flashbacks reveal what Parker cannot (or will not) reveal herself. While certainly a useful literary technique, I started to get a little bored by the sheer amount of repetition that the flashbacks employed. With each flashback, readers are privy to an additional few moments of Parker's memories of that fateful party where everything changed. New details are added chronologically, and the climax, the part of the flashback that actually matters, doesn't occur until near the end of the book, so I had a bit of difficulty remembering all the earlier details of the night that had led to this point. The flashbacks worked overall, but I wish there had been a stronger connection between them all, and that they had been more seamlessly integrated with the story as a whole.
I was not completely satisfied with the ending. This is not a novel that should have a clear-cut ending, and I didn't mind Summers' use of the ambiguous ending in This is Not a Test. In this instance, however, I just wanted a little more. Very little happens in this book (outside of the turmoil inside Parker's mind), and then so many things happen in the last few chapters. It all made sense, but it felt a bit abrupt. And I didn't quite have confidence in all of the characters' abilities to move forward successfully. Still, I did appreciate that Summers made her ending unconventional and unexpected overall. Summers could very easily have turned the reveal into a big cliche, but thankfully she's a much better author than to allow that to happen.
I enjoyed reading Parker's story, although I admit that I did feel a bit of relief upon finishing it. It's well-written and interesting, but also a very heavy story. Summers clearly has a gift for creating complex, damaged characters who feel incredibly realistic. I love the fact that Summers has a clear type of character that she not only likes to write, but can write well. I like knowing what to expect of authors I read, and I definitely plan on reading more of her books soon. Just after a little bit of a break with some lighter reads and happier protagonists.
Rating: 3.5 stars