Cross “Mean Girls” and “Never Been Kissed,” throw in a potent dash of TV shows like the new “90210” and mix with a side of “She’s All That” (oh, the ’90s!) for a taste of Elise Allen’s Populazzi, a young adult novel with plenty of sass mixed with its teen angst.
“Cara has never been one of those girls: confident, self-possessed, and always ready with the perfect thing to say. A girl at the very top of the popularity tower. One of the Populazzi.
“Now, junior year could change everything. Cara’s moving to a new school, and her best friend urges her to seize the moment—with the help of the Ladder. Its rungs are relationships, and if Cara transforms into the perfect girlfriend for guys ever-higher on the tower, she’ll reach the ultimate goal: Supreme Populazzi.
“The Ladder seems like a lighthearted social experiment, a straight climb up, but it quickly becomes gnarled and twisted. And when everything goes wrong, only the most audacious act Cara can think of has a chance of setting things even a little bit right.” (Goodreads)
Being an avid fan of such flicks mentioned above (especially “Never Been Kissed,” which I watched on endless repeat as a teen), I had a feeling Allen’s Populazzi would capture much of the spirit I enjoy about those films: the desire to stand out while still fitting in; the pressure to find a boy/girlfriend and keep them; the hope of being liked and understood by a good group of friends
. . . these are the issues that devour our energy in youth. And though I’m a decade removed from that time of my life, it’s not hard to put myself back there.
What I’d hoped to find in Populazzi, Cara’s story of rising to power in a suburban Pennsylvania high school, was there . . . if a little less compelling than I’d hoped. Not to sound like a big ol’ prude, but I found the novel’s focus on sex, drug use and changing to ascend a fictional “Ladder” to “Supreme Populazzi” a little unsettling. Though she’s eventually held accountable for her actions, Cara lies to her parents, sneaks around, dresses a “part” and almost sabotages her future by missing a very important college-related meeting. And subplots involving a creepy, emotionally abusive stepfather and pot-smoking ex-boyfriend left a sour taste in my mouth.
It’s all typical teenage stuff, I’m sure. But it left me feeling a little spent.
Though the ultimate message of the story was a positive one (be yourself and behave yourself), Cara had to go on quite a journey to get there. I couldn’t help but feel like Claudia, her best friend at the school Cara left behind, was intentionally leading her astray. Encouraging her to make bold moves without having to deal with the fall-out, giving her seemingly ridiculous advice about dumping dudes to “move on to the next one” in the name of popularity . . . well, it smacked of poor judgment. And being mean.
I guess that’s my major hang-up with the story: Cara didn’t endear herself to me. I found her actions callous at best and dangerous at worst. Becoming “emo” to attract the attentions of a bad-boy rocker goes contrary to every bit of advice we’re given when looking for a partner: don’t change for anyone else. And though I hate sounding like a serious fuddy-duddy, that didn’t work for me.
Despite my reservations and occasional discontent, Populazzi is an entertaining tale in the vein of those aforementioned ’90s teen flicks. It’s fun. Archer, our male hero, has plenty of swoonworthy moments with our lead . . . albeit their timing is continuously off throughout this big novel. We spend half our time wondering if Cara and Archer will cast aside their squabbles to actually communicate around their epic miscommunication, but I had a hunch — call it readerly intuition — that this one would have a happy ending.
And it did. For all her wardrobe changing, personality shifting, friendship busting and hot guy crushing, Cara ultimately sees the value of doing the right thing — and when given a chance to ruin someone else’s life for the sake of popularity, she makes a surprising decision. I felt a sense of maternal pride in our heroine then — and realized with a jolt that I’m starting to feel maternal toward teen characters.
And that scared me. Especially since I keep plucking stark-white hairs from my scalp. (Hi, I’m 27 going on 77. Don’t mind me.)
Fans of young adult fiction and stories where the “mean girls” get theirs will find some humor and heart in Allen’s Populazzi. As the characters often find themselves in pretty “adult” situations and there’s plenty of frank talk about sex, drinking, etc., I wouldn’t recommend it to readers younger than 14. Or, heck, 16. Or maybe 18.
And you kids get off my lawn!
3.5 out of 5!