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Published April 5th 2012 by Hodder Children's Books - UK (first published September 7th 2010, US)
This book took me by surprise. I went into it expecting to like it - it was one of the very few contemporary novels of last year that I actually actively wanted, the reviews were just that good. But even though I expected to enjoy it and get something out of it, I didn't expect for it to keep me up all night. I didn't expect for it to be the type of book that I wanted to just flip back to the beginning and start again once I'd finished. I didn't expect it to make me uncomfortable and empathetic, and cringey and butterfly-stomached.
But where to begin?
If you watched my May Rewind video, you'll know that I was a bitter bitch in high school. (And if you went to high school with me, well, you already knew that. Sorry.) Reading Bianca made me so uncomfortable because she is a bitter bitch and I could relate. She's so bitter and hurting and unsure-but-pretending-she's-fine. She's so me, she's so us, that it was hard to read at times. We're all thankful to leave high school for a reason, right? We're so ready to leave our high school emotions and our high school selves behind, and reading Bianca brought that back. Her complete shock at being called a "DUFF" (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by Wesley, and the way it worms into her brain, on top of all of the other, normal crappy teenage stuff she has to go through, just felt so true and so achingly pitch-perfect that it made it difficult to read at times. Everything she does is a front, and you just want so badly to get at the real Bianca, the smart, sassy, potentially-confident
But the beautiful thing about her is that she grows. And that godawful jackass that is Wesley grows, and before you know it, she's not such a bitter bitch, and he's not such a godawful jackass anymore. These are dynamic characters, my friends, and man, I love it when that happens. There's such a great reversal of characters, and they had such believable emotions and reactions, that I couldn't help but love this and be impressed by it. And honestly, the fact that it made me so uncomfortable (that I identified with it the way I did) says a lot about Keplinger's talent for characterization and authenticity, and I appreciate that. It also just has a great gut-feel. If you think about this, you know what I mean. There are those books that just make you physically feel something; your reaction is visceral, whether it be butterflies or tension or a pounding heart, or whatever. That type of reaction is a big deal to me (and most readers, I think).
This may be potentially... triggering, I guess, for some. Not in a serious trauma way, but Bianca's self-destructiveness (and really, Wesley's, too) may make others feel uncomfortable in a way completely different from my relating to Bitchy Bianca. The mindlessness of what Bianca does may bother some people, too, but it felt very realistic and painful to me, and 1000x accurate. And I think the way it's all presented ended up working for me, and will probably work well for most people - though those who are sexytimes-squeamish should probably pick up a different book.
But if that doesn't bother you, and you're willing to be made a bit uncomfortable, I can't think of a better book to do it; I talk about douchebags and bitches in YA and how that can be really risky, but in this case, it's not glorified. Everything's muddied and hard and feels much more real for it. And despite the fact that Bianca goes for Wesley (despite the obvious OH HELLS NO factor) and eventually falls for him, she doesn't take his shit and she doesn't lick his boots, and that makes a hell of a difference in how receptive I'll be. His douchebaggery is used to show how someone's thoughtless actions can really change your view of yourself and your confidence. And Bianca's closed-off bitchiness shows how easy it is to shelter yourself so well that you deprive yourself of anything good. What makes it so great - and something I know I will reread - is that they both had these issues, these self-destructive tendencies, failings, etc., that made them work together. They were really good complements to each other, and without each other, they probably would have went on as they were.
Which brings me to my middle-of-the-book/night realization: this book is SO retold Pride and Prejudice. I don't remember when I realized this, and I don't know if it's been commented on before, but seriously - this is an ultra-modern, pared-down P&P. We've got the vivacious and stubborn girl, the rich, handsome, aloof and assholey guy, and then all of this glorious tension and misunderstanding, leading up to the realization that they're perfect for each other. It's a story that never gets old, that works on every level - it's my favorite story for a reason. And The Duff definitely uses that. I was so, so very pleasantly surprised by this layer, I think I actually cackle-giggled when it hit me. But the less said about that, the better...
So really, if you haven't already, and I haven't convinced you, what more can I say to get you to pick this up? It's funny. It's quick. It's dynamic. It's very modern while avoiding some of the pitfalls of contemporary. It's relatable and somehow still universal. Mostly, though, I just liked the way it made me feel. Like, physically feel. The good and the bad, the uncomfortable and the exhilarating, it's a book you feel while you read, and that's huge to me. The biggest compliment I can pay it is that I know I will reread it, and this I will reread. Absolutely, without a doubt.