Vinaya's Reviews > New Girl

New Girl by Paige Harbison
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Rarely has a book has left me as confused and conflicted as New Girl. When I started the first chapter, I was very, very sure I was going to hate it, but I just couldn't. This book was like the little girl in the nursery rhyme... when it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad it was horrid.

Let's start with the good bits. I think New Girl might quite possibly be my favourite retelling this year. Paige Harbison got it just right - the story can stand alone as a well-plotted contemporary YA novel, but still manages to pay tribute to the much-beloved DuMaurier classic, Rebecca. Without veering too far from the original story, Harbison still manages to put her own individual stamp on things. And most refreshingly, this is not a retelling of a myth about super-special supernatural creatures on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests - it's a story about (mostly) real people and interpersonal relationships and handling everyday life.

I really, really liked the new girl. Although, unlike in Rebecca, we do find out her name eventually, Paige Harbison manages to skilfully keep the narrator's name out of the book without seeming like she was forcibly withholding it. And although I have only a faint memory of Rebecca (it is far from being my favourite DuMaurier) I think the characterization of the new girl is infinitely stronger and more likeable than the trembling, tentative second Mrs. de Winter. The new girl in this story isn't afraid to stand up for herself - although much of her life at her new boarding school, Manderly, is lived under the shadow of the missing yet vibrantly alive presence of Becca, she is far from being a shrinking wallflower. Although she has several instances of self doubt and insecurity, it is justified by her life at Manderly and the circumstances surrounding it. And she does have moments of self-awareness and a fair idea of her own value, which ups my respect for her by a hundred points, easy.

The pacing, however, was what really made this book for me. It's not a super-fast, action-loaded story, but it moves along at just the right pace to keep you turning the pages, eager to see what comes next. Harbison's writing is not perfect, but she manages to hold on to her audience, nonetheless, and her characterizations are, for the most part, interesting as all hell. The story is not so much creepy as it is chilling, a train building up to a wreck with each successive page, making sure you just can't look away. I also liked the dual perspective of the new girl and Becca, a seamless transition for the most part, although I do think the author could have done way, way better on the characterization of Becca.

Which brings me to the reason why this was a 3-star read for me instead of a 4-star one. Firstly, the book starts off on the lamest premise ever. The new girl is headed off to Manderly, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, leaving behind her friends and family. She is not very happy about this development because, according to her, when she was thirteen , she tried to get into Manderly, failed, and got very upset about it. So unbeknownst to her, her loving parents kept trying to get her in, and four years later, when she's forgotten all about her fleeting desire to go to boarding school, her parents present her with an opportunity to finish up her senior year in a new place, far from home, away from the friends she has had her whole life, out of their overwhelming love for her.

I'm sorry, but I'm calling bullshit.

No parent in their right mind would think that a thirteen-year-old's desires would continue on through four years of teenagehood, especially when the narrator makes it very clear that she has forgotten all about wanting to go to Manderly. Secondly, no parent in their right mind would think it a good idea to uproot their child in the last year of school, at a place where she is happy and healthy and doing well, simply to send her off far, far away from everything she's ever known, and for no pressing reason. And thirdly, no teenager in her right mind would willingly and self-sacrificingly accept the situation without making the least push to tell her parents that she has changed her mind and would like to stay at home until she goes off to college the next year.

This entire story arc was less of a plot hole and more of a giant sinkhole, and coming in the first few pages, made me want to throw the book away. Why would you present your readers with such a blatantly stupid, made-up situation when there are a million others that would work better? Maybe her dad got transferred to Saudi Arabia. Maybe she still wanted to go to Manderly. Maybe her boyfriend mistreated her and she wanted to get the hell away from her surroundings. There are at least ten scenarios I could come up with right now that would be more convincing.

I do understand why Harbison took the route she did. The book is, in part, about finding strength and belief in yourself when you are far from familiar faces and comfortable surroundings. But I still think it could have been handled better.

My second big problem was with the characterization of Becca. We are all made very aware, from the very first page of Becca's viewpoint, that she is pretty much a sociopath. She is incapable of thinking of anyone but herself, and has no compunctions about hurting other people to get what she wants. She has no deep feelings towards her friends, and tends to use them mostly as pawns in her power plays. But instead of letting the reader find this out gradually, Harbison bluntly hammers home the point on page 10 and then relentlessly keeps drilling it in. Becca has no complexity, her personality is revealed not through her actions but through the very obvious thoughts in her head that the third person omniscient narrator tells us about. Becca could have been an interesting character, complex and complicated and compelling, but in the end, she is so obviously the mentally disturbed bad guy who appears in a horribly contrived final scene to make good her sins, that she loses all colour. This is one of the few times I wish I could have gotten my hands on a draft of this book before it went to the publisher - with a little more work, it could have gone from interesting-but-annoying to abso-fucking-lutely awesome.

The new girl's relationship with Max was another thing that was very hit-and-miss for me. The reason why Max de Winter stayed with Rebecca was very clear - social norms and peer pressure and status all combined to trap him in a relationship he couldn't get out of. And taking the comparison to an even older book along the same lines, Edward Rochester's fascination with his first wife had a basis in her beauty and his lust for her and his ambition. But here, I could see no reason why Max was sticking around Becca. At no point do you ever get the feeling that he felt deeply about her. He makes out with her, sure, because she is convenient, but he never feels a connection to her, or any deep desire to see her happy. Why would a regular teenage boy get all tortured and emo about a girl he doesn't even like very much? There is no chemistry, no sense of the dark fascination Becca supposedly asserts over people, nothing that could justify his acting the way he did. And the way he keeps jerking the new girl around, and how she keeps coming back for more? Not cool. This was possibly the part that annoyed me the most in the book, that despite the occasional flashes of rebellion and I'm-worth-more-than-this pep talks, the new girl never quite manages to shrug off Max and his assholish behaviour.

Speaking of which, I forgot to mention the hysterical, over-the-top Dana Veers, off her rocker and crushed by the disappearance of her friend, jealous and paranoid that the new girl is trying to take over Becca's life. Dana was quite possibly the best character in the book for me, mainly because Harbison let her have her say without trying to tell the reader how they should be viewing Dana, and what motivates her frenzy.

All in all, this book was an interesting experience, and I do think I would recommend it to most people. Unlike most of Harlequin Teen's tripe, this book actually has some substance, and like I said before, when Harbison is good, she is very, very good. Definitely worth a read, and I can't wait for someone to read it and tell me what they think! I'm so conflicted, I could use a second opinion!

A copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers via Net Galley.
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Reading Progress

12/07 page 13
4.0% "Sometimes I wonder if Harlequin Teen has any editors at all! Seriously, this book starts off on the lamest premise ever. And it pisses me off because you'd have to be superextrastupid to not spot that giant sinkhole in the opening chapter, and authors who assume their readers are going to be superextrastupid make it to the top of my blacklist. " 4 comments
12/07 page 56
18.0% "Someone needs to tell the author how to write sociopaths. This one is kind of... flat."
06/21 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Aleeeeeza ah, i was hoping for more from this one :/

Vinaya Oh, it's actually not bad Aleeza! If you're planning to read this, please do! I actually kind of liked it, but not enough to give it four stars. But it was interesting, and it made me sit up and pay attention, which Harlequin Teen books almost never do these days!

message 3: by Shirley (new)

Shirley Marr What a strange sounding setup for a retelling (frowns). But fantastic analysis Vinaya! You sound like a Best Friend Beta that every author should have sitting with them (side by side on a piano bench of course) PS - the girl on the cover looks like she's in pain.

Vinaya Thanks Shirley! :) I always feel a sense of longing when I see books with unrealized potential - I want to go up to the author and be like, I'll be your BFB!!! (thanks for the term, by the way, lol!)

And the cover is a little weird - I'm not entirely sure who it is supposed to be representing, but if its Becca, then I guess they got the expression right. It was a pretty dark story, in general.

message 5: by AH (new)

AH Loved how you called out the BS!
Great review!

Christina (Reading Thru The Night) I just finished this book this morning and saw your review and agree (mostly) wholeheartedly! I ALMOST stopped reading because of REASON why the new girl goes to Manderly was SO OVER THE TOP. Still....glad I read it.

Gina (My Precious Blog) An awesome review, I'm still in the middle of it. I'm finding its not quite unputdownable - though close. I want to know what's going on, its something very strange... I haven't read Rebecca so I really have no idea. I was a bit put off by Becca's promiscuousness, mainly because of her tender age. Hey, though I am over 40 so that could be part of it....

Katrina Passick Lumsden I agree with everything you said. This book was so silly, I actually found myself enjoying it....much the same way I occasionally enjoy melodramatic soap clips. Hilarious.

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