At the end of last school year, Paige Sheridan, along with her two best friends Nicky and Lacey, were in an accident after a late night drinking party. Because Paige’s mother is obsessed with keeping her daughter’s reputation flawless, she ships Paige overseas to au pair for the summer, thinking that by the time summer’s over, the accident will be out of the minds of everyone in their small Iowa town. Paige has to maintain her image as one of the popular, pretty, perfect girls.
When she gets back from her summer away, Paige is ready to see her boyfriend Jake and she’s eager to see Nicky and Lacey. The time apart was meant to heal their wounds, except when Paige returns, things are anything but peachy. Nicky and Lacey aren’t interested in being kind to Paige and Jake, who promised to take a creative writing class with Paige, has suddenly changed his schedule to take a film class with Lacey instead. Now Paige is alone and has to figure out who she is and where she now fits in at the school where she’d once reigned supreme. Thankfully, she’s got a lot of time to do it and a lot of opportunities to figure herself out via this creative writing class she hates being in.
Princesses of Iowa has all of the elements of a book I love: complicated characters, complicated situations, and a lot of unrest and insecurity between the two. There’s also great voice in this novel.
First and foremost, we’re dropped into the story at the beginning of the new school year. We aren’t forced through the car accident that created the rift between the girls, and we’re not forced through the summer after. Instead, we’re left to figure things out right along with Paige. And she has a lot to wade through. Where we should have some sort of sympathy for her, especially because it seems everyone has turned against her, Paige is not at all easy to like nor is she all that sympathetic. She’s very much a princess, and she’s egged on by her mother to be so. Paige has made a ton of mistakes in her past, including the drunk driving accident (easily forgotten, given the story’s set up) and she doesn’t feel an ounce of remorse for how she’s behaved. Moreover, she has further made unlikable because of her affluence — it’s not just that she’s wealthy in an area where wealth isn’t all that common, but it’s that she unabashedly flaunts it. She’s really had everything handed to her in life, and she’s not afraid to talk about it. There’s a scene in the story where she runs into Ethan — a new kid in town who has been the source of some relentless teasing — and he’s working at the local coffee shop. Paige even says to him that she can’t believe he has to work while he’s in school because, well, she’s never had to. She’s above him in this moment, and this interaction is just one of the many moments when she pivots herself as better than her peers because of her privilege.
Paige doesn’t act much better at home, and in fact, it’s probably her family and home life that contribute directly to her being the less-than-pleasant girl she is. Her mother is obsessed with maintaining an image of perfection, both for herself and for Paige. Without doubt, her mother uses Paige as a way to achieve the vapid glories she, too, longs for. Then there’s Miranda — Mirror — who is the younger sister and with whom Paige hasn’t necessarily had the greatest relationship. Mirror is envious of the attention her mother gives to her sister, and I think it’s fairly telling that she prefers to be called Mirror. Then there’s the father in the story, and even though he and mom are married, dad is never around. I suspect had he been around a lot more, we’d have an entirely different mother. It’s pretty obvious from the start that mom is bored and restless with her own life and she uses Paige as her way to find excitement and meaning. She’s lonely, much like Paige is. Need I mention her sister prefers to be called Mirror?
Nicky and Lacey are characters who are hurting a lot, but they also don’t garner a whole lot of sympathy. Nicky has taken on the role of advocate for an anti-drinking and driving campaign at school, right before Homecoming and she’s recruiting others to help her push the case. Lacey is dealing with being physically injured from the car accident, and while her pains are real, she uses them as a way to get attention and sympathy. Although we’re getting that reading of her behavior from Paige, I don’t doubt it’s true. Jake, who used to be involved with Paige, has essentially dumped her in order to “help Lacey out.” As much as it sounds like it’s out of the goodness of his heart, I don’t for a second believe it. He’s in it for the attention it brings him. For the honor of being close to tragedy.
Although the heft of storytelling falls in developing characters who are really unlikable and rather terrible people — my favorite kind to read about — one of the biggest plot points is about Paige’s journey of self-discovery through creative writing. She takes the class because she thinks it will be easy and because Jake will be in it with her. But when he chooses to take a different class with Lacey instead, Paige is left on her own. And this writing class isn’t easy at all. Paige doesn’t have anything she believes to be worth writing about. More than that, though, the classroom is a battlefield of everything she’s ever fought against. She has to deal with people who are different than her and who challenge her reputation of perfection. It’s in this class she first meets Ethan (the coffee shop boy) and has to confront the notion of what she’s been led to believe about a person isn’t necessarily the truth about that person. Along the same lines, Paige has to figure out how to work with her teacher, Mr. Tremont. Rumor is he’s gay and being gay in a place like small town Iowa isn’t cool. It’s scary and makes Paige uncomfortable when she buys into the rumor. . . and maybe spreads the rumor herself.
This creative writing class not only helps Paige learn about other people and how it’s okay to be different, but it helps her discover who she is. It forces her to confront all of the ugliness she carries and use it in more meaningful ways. Although it’s effective in the story and at times it’s great to read (because when you read or when you write, you confront those very same things about yourself and getting that affirmation via reading is always neat), I felt like it sometimes bordered on didactic.
The Princesses of Iowa is a long book, and when I was reading it, I felt the length more than once. That’s not to say this isn’t well-paced or well-written because it is. There is certainly great character development and I appreciated watching these terrible characters get what they deserve, but because of the length, the power of the creative writing element made me question whether the characters were really great characters or whether they were props supporting this Great and Meaningful Message about the way writing can change your life. That’s not to say I ever believed that was the purpose of the story or the characters, but it felt like a little too much. Combined with a few plot points that felt over-the-top and slight (including a scene where the anti-gay coalition shows up at the high school to protest their hiring of a teacher who may or may not be homosexual which was over and done in just a couple of pages, despite being a huge and important thing worth digging into), the story became heavy within itself. It took on more than it could support when it had so much going for it already. A little less could have made this even stronger.
Backes’s book reads like a love letter to writing, and the real story behind it here is that of how writing can change a person. Paige definitely has an ah ha moment in the book, but I think she got off much too easily. For being as terrible a person as she was, she comes to some hard and fast realizations through making new friends and through realizing that opening her mouth when she shouldn’t isn’t always the smart thing or the right thing to do. She works through 450 pages of story and walks away way more unscathed than she should. I’m a big believer in terrible characters getting their fair share so it was a little bit of a letdown.
Princesses of Iowa will have nice appeal to teen readers who are interested in writing themselves, and I think it’ll appeal to readers who like stories with complex and downright unlikeable characters. This book is set in small town Iowa, so it’ll appeal particularly to readers who want stories in a rural setting. There were a lot of interesting cross-over themes between Backes’s story and Geoff Herbach’s Stupid Fast, particularly in terms of social class, small-town life, social norms, and the whole host of -isms which box and label people, and I could see those who liked Herbach’s story liking this one, too. Fans of Catherine Gilbert Murdoch’s Dairy Queen series who are looking for something a little more mature will likely appreciate this one as well.
Review copy received from the publisher. The Princesses of Iowa releases today.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).