500 words or less. 500 words or fewer if you’re being grammatically correct, but as Nic our main character points out, she’s not the one making the mistake here, it’s the admission essay. That’s what this starts out as, on the surface. Admission essays, written for $300 for her well off classmates that want to get into Ivy League schools like Stanford so they can live the kind of life they’ve been killing themselves for these past several years.
What kind of life does Nic want? In the wake of breaking up with her boyfriend post-cheating scandal, still dealing with the effects of her mother abandoning her, and striving to maintain the perfect image that will, in turn, get her into her own Ivy League dream, it’s hard to see what path Nic wants to tread. Following her down it offers insight into the world of high pressure academics and privilege, told in verse, as she tries to figure out just what it is she’s supposed to do with all this life hanging over her.
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Published: 25 September 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Category: Young Adult/Poetry/Contemporary
Nic Chen refuses to spend her senior year branded as the girl who cheated on her charismatic and lovable boyfriend. To redefine her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates, Nic begins writing their college admissions essays.
But the more essays Nic writes for other people, the less sure she becomes of herself, the kind of person she is, and whether her moral compass even points north anymore.
Rating: 4 Stars
CW: alcoholism, teen drinking
Rep: biracial MC (Chinese-American)
500 Words or Less had many thematic threads to it, several intense subjects that dangle in front of the reader: racism; the cutthroat nature of academia; parental neglect; privilege; double standards & sexism. The problem with these themes is that for the most part, they remain faint threads that didn’t get examined particularly deeply. There would be brief mentions, but no real in-depth discussions that lead anywhere, whether to dead ends or resolutions.
Nic as a character was conflicting. There’s not a lot to her in terms of what she’s like, what fulfills her or interests her. What activities are mentioned (tennis, newspaper, etc.) are mentioned briefly and without passion. This lack of heart would normally have me feeling like it’s poor characterization, but in the context of students so desperate to get into Ivy League schools, her lack of fulfilling traits might be a condemnation of this horror show of stress. There’s no time for relaxation, no time to be a person, really, other than what’s crafted for an admission application. Nic makes choices throughout 500 Words that supports this, such as in her friendship with Kitty, when she leaves her, drunk, at a party and doesn’t check in on her on Sunday.
She started to open up when Ashok became her friend/study buddy. There were little moments where the tension of it all released, like enjoying a donut or inhaling homemade Indian food, that revealed another side of Nic that wasn’t totally about AP exams or Ben or finding her mother.
Nic gets confronted about her privilege by Ashok. She charges money for her essays, a lot, just because she can. In a way, it’s like any other self destructive behavior that a rich, privileged kid engages in because they’re bored or because they need something their parents are neglecting to give them, only Nic isn’t endangering her body with alcohol or drugs. She’s endangering her academic standing and possibly her criminal record.
Further to her privilege, it never occurred to her that there were people at her school that worked just as hard as her but didn’t have the advantages. She assumed they all had fathers in prestigious jobs, mothers with endless expense accounts, rather than a parent that works as the janitor so his son could attend a good school. Continuing on in this vein, there’s a reflection that she has about racism in the town and how the town shies away from acknowledging it, how admitting it’s there makes the town uncomfortable, even when their star quarter back is a black boy. These two points, though, are among the important themes I mentioned earlier that don’t really go anywhere. They’re brought up naturally and could’ve made for excellent discussion points, but instead they just stop.
One of the best parts of the book, I thought was the essays that Nic wrote for her classmates. In all of the essays that Nic writes, the ones that we get to read, there are glimpses not only of the people that she’s writing for, but of herself as well. It’s unclear if she realizes how much she reveals about herself in them, such as how much she needs and wants to be a whole person (Bryant’s essay), what obsession feels like (Marco’s essay about an ex), or feelings of abandonment by her mother (Laurel’s essay).
The format 500 Words or Less was written in wasn’t wholly displeasing, but I don’t think it was quite the right one for the story either. Stories told in verse are good and can be great. This one was a good story, but the flow was choppy and stylistically didn’t make sense. The endings of lines, of passages, didn’t convey anything to me, although I will say it also didn’t prevent the voice of the overall book from coming through, so it wasn’t an overall failure.
The voices were hard to separate at times, making it necessary to re-read passages over and over again. In an ordinary book the speech would be easy to note based on constant he/she/they said or insert-name-here said, but that wasn’t to be found reliably here, so I couldn’t always tell who was speaking because a) it wasn’t labeled. Okay, not a problem if the voices & tones are distinct but b) 90% of the time they weren’t. It was super easy to mistake Nic & Asok’s words for each other, for example.
Even with the upsets I had with the book and the quasi-unsatisfying ending, I would still recommend this book to story-in-verse fans and other readers alike. It was a quick read and pretty interesting, all things considered.
Interview With the Author
The Hermit Librarian (THL): High school can be difficult enough to face. Nic has added challenges, such as her mother leaving and the aftereffects of the Ben situation. What’s a piece of advice you wish you’d had at Nic’s age?
Life is complex, and often filled with gray, and sometimes it might be deeply unsatisfying.
It’s not necessarily positive advice, but I wish people had given me advice that reflected reality, where things are more ambiguous.
THL: Interests evolve so much as we frown whether by choice or by pressure from outside influences like parental figures. What kind of potential pathways did you see for yourself when you were younger? Are there any you still want to pursue?
JDR: I wanted to be a Marine Biologist but I didn’t really know what that entailed other than I loved marine animals and tide pools. The reality of why I didn’t end up pursuing sciences after high school is pretty mundane. I took a science course my first semester in college that should have been exactly what I wanted, but instead I found it boring. At the same time, I started to be exposed to such as political science, English, and women & gender studies. I just wasn’t excited anymore about marine biology and started to realize how much more there was to learn in this world, especially about humans and human nature.
I feel very fortunate to not only be able to say I’m a published author, but also to say I’m a librarian. Both jobs keep me (overcommitted) busy.
THL: In Nic’s English class, her teacher questions them about the crimes in Crime & Punishment. Nic points out that it depends upon who is asked, particularly because there is a character who rationalizes their actions to the point that they believe they are not committing a crime. Did you pick C&P specifically to highlight Nic’s lack of a problem with writing her classmates essays, considering her similarity to Raskolnikov?
JDR:Yes, but it’s more than just conveying Nic’s lack of remorse, it’s conveying a culture of a morally broken compass, and that sometimes things just progress as is. People might do things that could be considered unethical, and nothing bad ever happens.
THL: In the essays she wrote for others, Nic left pieces of herself behind. Does this have something to do with your decision to not include Nic’s college admission essay in 500 Words or Less?
JDR: This is kinda a spoiler, but the decision not to include Nic’s college admission essay is related to some of the last lines of the novel. While the title and a large part of the novel revolves around Nic learning about her classmates and herself through writing 500 word essays, the last lines of the novel. We are all humans who are complex and cannot be distilled into essays of 500 words or less.
THL: This one’s difficult to ask without being spoiler-y, but I’ll try. Let’s just say, nothing end’s up like anyone thought it would. Did you ever consider an ending other than the one you ending up going with or were Nic, Jordan, and the rest always fated for this?
JDR:The ending was there from the beginning and was an important part of the type of novel I wanted to write. I kept reading all these YA stories where everything was tied up into a neat little bow by the end, and that just didn’t reflect the reality I knew. Life might not work out at all, in a satisfying way. I wanted to hear that story, I wanted someone to tell me that life can be deeply unsatisfying and messy and complex and often exists in ethically gray areas. I wanted to write a story that acknowledges that reality.
END SPOILER QUESTIONS/ANSWERS
THL: What made you choose to tell this story in verse style? Or did you set out to tell a story in verse style first and Nic’s tale evolved from that
JDR:The original draft of 500 Words or Less was written in prose, but when I finished the early drafts the story did not have the emotional quality that I envisioned for the story. I started experimenting with form and style, and at the time was reading a number of verse novels. Once I started experimenting with verse style, the emotional quality I was looking for started to come through.
Verse fits well for this story because it allows for more white space, more ambiguity, more room for the reader to contemplate the complexities, and the gray areas that exist in both Nic’s experiences, but also in our own lives.
THL: As this story is told from Nic’s point of view, it’s difficult to tell how other’s are feeling about the events of the book at times. I’m curious, what’s was going on with Xiao-ling and her son during the time that Nic was wrestling with the essay? How did Nic’s intensity with her senior year, the events at the end of the school year, in particular the reappearance of a certain someone, affect these two?
JDR:There are a lot of characters in 500 Words or Less, some who come in briefly, but what I wanted to convey with a lot of these characters who don’t necessary get a satisfying amount of “air time” is that, often times, for some of us who are like Nic, very focused on our own worlds, we do not take the time to even understand the people in our everyday lives to the depth that all of us deserve.
So, I love your question because it’s recognizing that yes, there is a stepmother and a stepbrother that Nic barely even acknowledges. We can essentially fail to see people even as close as those who live in our own homes.
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I received a copy of this book as part of the Rich in Variety Book Tour in exchange for an honest review.
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