Rival by Sara Bennett Wealer

Kathryn and Brooke do not get along. The girls are seniors and both actively involved in the school choir. Calling it involved would be an understatement, actually: both are passionate about singing, and both have an opportunity to perform at the Blackmore Young Artists Contest, a huge honor that comes with an even huger check for the winner. For Kathryn, this money means the possibility of attending college to pursue her passion. For Brooke, it’s much less about the money and much more about proving to her family — especially her father — she’s got talent and that she’s worthy of their support.

But will their bitter rivalry be what causes both girls to falter on stage? More than that, though, what even caused the rift between the girls in the first place? Can it be repaired?

Sara Bennett-Wealer’s Rival has pulled me from a reading rut. I found this to be a refreshing book, and one that will resonate with readers strongly. First and foremost, what stood out to me was that the format served the story and the characters perfectly. This story is told in dual voices, beginning with Kathryn and then moving to Brooke, and it is also told through dual time periods: the girls’ senior year and their junior year. Setting the book up this way gives us their current moments in time but also leads us into understanding what created their bitter rivalry. It’s a slow reveal because of this set up, but it needs to be.

What I loved about the use of multiple perspectives in this novel is what usually doesn’t work in other stories set up like this: I felt like both characters had distinct voices. Both Brooke and Kathryn believed the other one had everything enviable. Kathryn believed Brooke to be made of money and privileged and Brooke believed Kathryn was beautiful and the kind of girl she’d want to be around to become much more than she could ever be alone. But the truth of the matter was Brooke was dealing with an absent father and aching heart because of it — not to mention one of the sourest best friends I’ve read in a long time in Chloe — and Kathryn’s challenged by money problems and the fact her only true friend is Matt. As readers, we get to see both sides of the story and understand why each girl envies the other and why neither is truly a mean girl or one without intention.

Any story focused on the idea of a competition has high stakes at play, and this one is no different. I’ll be honest in saying I was a little let down in the competition aspects; I would have loved more detail on the singing, the music, and the fierce vocal battling required to be a stand out singer. But really, this isn’t a story about the competition. It’s a story about Brooke and Kathryn coming to terms with the big rift that occurred between them. There is huge build up to this through the story, and it’s not until more than half way through we find out what caused the two of them to go at odds. And it has to do with both girls’ insecurities. I wasn’t as impressed with this as I wanted to be, but this leads me to my other big point in this story — voice.

Kathryn and Brooke might be some of the more realistic high schoolers I’ve read. Their dialogue, their rivalry, their interactions, and sheer insecurities mixed with their passion in social and artistic endeavors clicked. I know these girls working with teens today, and I knew these girls when I was a teen myself. So, despite being a little let down in what the big deal was that caused the two of them to be at war with one another, it’s extremely realistic and honest. Most readers won’t think twice about it because it’s an easy buy. It makes sense.

Something that resonated with me as a reader and made me so sympathetic toward Brooke were her father issues. I don’t feel like many books do a great job of capturing what it’s like to be the daughter of an absent, too-busy-for-you father; fortunately, I think Bennett-Wealer nailed it. I wish stuff like this had been there for me when I was younger. While it’s not the big part of the story, for those who are dealing with issues like this, Brooke’s emotional highs and lows and the conclusion she reaches at the end of the story will really resonate. It is extremely realistic and not once overdone, despite the fact it could have been, given her father’s career.

For fans of romance in their stories, there is a bit in Rival, but I appreciated this wasn’t really what the girls fought over. I almost could have done without it, but because of the book’s audience, I understand why it’s there. And boy, here’s another book where a guy best friend turns out to be the best kind of friend one can ask for. Matt gets crapped on and still stands by Kathryn’s side, and how I really loved him because of it. He’s a great secondary character and one I wouldn’t have minded even more of throughout the story.

Pass Rival on to fans of shows like Glee, but I think this book would go over quite well with those who enjoy Sarah Dessen or Elizabeth Scott. Sure, there’s the “mean girl” and “revenge” aspects to this story that don’t come out in Dessen or Scott, but the voices here will match quite well. I’d love to see this one read alongside Caridad Ferrer’s When the Stars Go Blue, too, if for no other reason than the heightened emotions and experiences that come through fierce artistic competition and pressure. Another interesting read with this one would be Siobhan Vivian’s Same Difference for the issues of friendship, competition, and the arts. I don’t necessarily think this is the strongest read alike to Pretty Little Liars, to which it’s drawn many comparisons. But try it — you might win over readers to stronger, less melodramatic contemporary.

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  1. says

    @Lenore: I think you hit the nail on the head! The characters are very layered and I really felt pulled toward both of them for different reasons. This is also why I just don't buy it being a great readalike to Pretty Little Liars. These girls are richer and actually deserve some sympathy.

  2. says

    Your review is spot on with how I felt about the book too! I really don't see it as a readalike to Pretty Little Liars — there's much more depth here. I think Same Difference is a much better readalike choice.

  3. says

    I'm excited to hear that there is emotional depth on par with When the Stars Go Blue. I felt that one hard. I was hoping to pick this one up today as a matter of fact but my Borders didn't have it. :(

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