Sunday, March 27, 2016

Book Review: Defending Taylor by Miranda Kenneally

Defending Taylor Cover Enjoyable, YA, family/social drama

Defending Taylor (Hundred Oaks) by Miranda Kenneally

Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: July 5, 2016
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Pages: 304 pages
Source: NetGalley
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

Taylor is the 17-year-old daughter of a powerful U.S. Senator from her home state of Tennessee. She is delighted with the very expensive, exclusive, private boarding school she has attended for years. She and her boyfriend, Ben, are in love and have been together for almost a year, and have lost their virginity together. Taylor is a hyper-achiever, and her biggest goal in life is making her father proud. He expects Taylor and her two-years-older, twin siblings, a brother and sister, to get business degrees and work for the family's financial firm when they graduate. Though Taylor loathes math, and constantly struggles to keep her grades up in her advanced-placement math classes, she is determined to follow the expected, father-mandated, life course.

Then, suddenly, her entire life falls apart due to a moment of altruistic impulse. While spending an afternoon in the woods near her boarding school with Ben, he briefly leaves her side to use the restroom while she has fallen into a doze. She is abruptly awakened to discover two of the school's teachers going through Ben's backpack. She is as shocked as they are when it is revealed that Ben has a stash of 30 illegal, prescription, pep pills in his backpack. She always thought he acquired them on an as-needed basis only from a buddy of his whenever he or Taylor needed help staying awake late to study. But this discovery makes it obvious that he is a drug dealer. Half asleep and working on automatic pilot, Taylor claims that the backpack is hers and the pills are hers for her own use. Her motivation is that Ben is a scholarship student and the first from his working-class family to have the possibility of going to college. She assumes that if he steps up and takes responsibility for his actions, his life will be ruined. Not only because his family cannot afford an expensive attorney to represent him, but because he will lose his scholarship and be expelled. She figures that, as a privileged rich girl with a Senator in her pocket, if she covers for Ben, her powerful father will cover for her and she will not be expelled and will get no more than a slap on the wrist in the form of community service.

Unfortunately, Senator Dad is not feeling particularly like doing what all the other powerful, entitled, rich men with disorderly kids at Taylor's school have done for their offspring, following the predictable script for rich, powerful men from time immemorial, making sure their kids never pay any price at all for their illegal actions. Yes, he does bring in a pricey attorney who pleads down Taylor's criminal drug offense (which would land a poor kid with a cheap or court-appointed attorney in jail, possibly for decades) to no criminal penalty at all, not even any community service, and a guarantee of a sealed, juvenile criminal record. However, dear, old Dad refuses to go as far as insisting to the school that his daughter not be expelled, and Taylor is kicked out of her school. Further, Dad informs Taylor that she is on her own getting into Yale, his own alma mater, because he won't be writing on her behalf the typical reference letter that a rich, powerful alumnus of such schools invariably writes for his offspring, demanding that they get first crack at attending a highly competitive, ivy-league university, graduation from which guarantees a lifetime of being plugged into the privilege-sharing-and-expanding, "old boy network" of the societal elites. In addition, though Taylor, in the moment of covering for Ben and afterwards, urged him to not come forward and admit the drugs were his, she resents him terribly for not overriding her noble deed, falling on his sword, and rescuing her from her own quixotic actions. As a result, she summarily dumps him and refuses to respond to any of his subsequent texts or calls.

Taylor finds herself forced to attend the fictional public high school, Hundred Oaks, in her family's home town, Franklin, an actual, real-world, small, rural town in Tennessee. There are no excellent advanced-placement, college courses at this plebeian venue; she has no friends; and where she was previously captain of a terrific girls' soccer team led by an outstanding coach, now her only option is to be a second-place, discounted member of a poorly trained, unmotivated team with a coach who spends their practice sessions playing with his smart phone rather than coaching.

Taylor is an attractive girl, and immediately several guys show interest in her, including, most worryingly, her brother's best friend Ezra. Having just come off a bad relationship with Ben, Taylor has no interest in dating in general, but especially not with Ezra. They have a history that was another big heartbreak for her, and she has no desire to get involved with him in any way.

Miranda Kenneally is a very talented writer, and I've read every one of her young-adult books. She tends to have two types of plots in each of her YA novels: a family/social-drama plot (often surrounding in some way, as in this book, the female protagonist participating in a sport) as well as a romance plot. It varies from book to book which of these two is the main plot and which is the secondary plot. I personally much prefer it when the primary plot is the romance, because Ms. Kenneally writes romance very well. However, in this particular book, the family/social-drama plot is the main one, because most of the focus is on Taylor's relationship with her father, and her intense need to please him and gain his approval, at all costs. The relationship with Ezra in the romance subplot is enjoyable, and I like Ezra a lot, but there is little of the complications and complexity that occurs in other books by Ms. Kenneally when she opts to make the romance the main plot, such as in her most recent book (which I adored and is my top favorite of all her books), Jesse's Girl.

Every YA novel, to some extent, is a "coming of age" novel, and this book is no different in that regard. The main arc of the book, in the context of her relationship with her father, is Taylor figuring out what's most important in life, and what it means to be true to herself. As such, this is a well-written, engaging story, and fans of that type of story will be particularly pleased with this book.

I personally rate this book as PG-13, because there is swearing, illicit drug use, underage drinking, and pre-marital sex. The sex scenes, however, are tasteful and not explicit.

REVIEWER DISCLOSURE: I received an Advance Reviewer Copy (ARC) of this book from NetGalley. The publisher's projected release date is July 5, 2016.

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 4

Hero: 4

Subcharacters: 4

Family/Social Drama Plot: 4

Romance Plot: 4

Writing: 4

Overall: 4

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