Review: Call It What You Want by Brigid Kemmerer

I think out of all the YA contemporaries I’ve read in my day (god, that makes me sound so old), this has to be one of the heaviest ones I’ve read and it’s not because it dealt with strong or graphic topics, like assault or abuse or what have you. But, in my opinion, it was very emotionally heavy and the things that the two main characters were dealing with, the weight that was constantly on their shoulders, was something you could really feel and hit your sympathy hard. I’m sure that sounds like nonsense but when you finish a borderline 400 page book in less than 24 hours, sometimes you start spewing stuff that works in your head but not out loud. The point is, this book really captivated me and the story that unfolded was definitely a lot more raw than some of the other YA contemporaries I’ve read and loved. It wasn’t absolutely perfect, because I’m apparently incredibly hard to impress these days, but I do think it’s one of those “can’t miss” books.

What I usually expect out of YA contemporaries is a relatively embellished way of life for the teens in the story and how most of the drama that goes on is something that would only happen in a YA book, you know? But there was something about this that felt very real and something I could imagine happening to real people. The first is how Maegan, our female protagonist, was caught cheating during her SATs and not only did she gain a reputation of a cheater but her mistake was the reason that 100 other kids had to have their scores scrapped. Now, I don’t know squat about the SATs since it’s not something we have to do in Canada, but based on American media I have a good understanding of how important those scores are. There is so much pressure to do well on that test and get good scores that I’m sure there are people who consider cheating to ensure they do well, and that’s essentially why Maegan did it. She felt there was all this pressure to live up to her sister, who’d gotten an Ivy League sports scholarship, and to make herself seem like she’s the same, if not better, than her sister. It didn’t matter than Maegan was a straight A student, the pressure still hit her like a truck and led her to making that mistake, which goes to show that any person can make a mistake like that regardless of their situation. For the male protagonist, Rob, his entire life was defined by a mistake that his father made when he chose to steal money from investment clients and when he was turned into the police by a friend, they lost everything and Rob’s father tried to kill himself as a result. Everyone around Rob thinks that he knew or constantly blame him for what his father did to them, thinking that his father’s mistakes are also his, and this takes someone who was on such a pedestal before right to the bottom. These problems aren’t your typical YA contemporary problems like trying to impress a boy with fake dating another or getting into fights with the mean girls because the protagonist isn’t conventionally pretty or rich; they’re heavy and serious and ones that have actual consequences that shape the characters’ lives. I loved reading that in this story and watching the characters try to move away from their new reputations and be defined by more than their past.

There were a lot of interesting themes in this book and as I already mentioned, the idea of making mistakes based on pressure was one of the big ones, but associated with that was why people are led to make certain choices or mistakes. Maegan was almost drowning in pressure to live up to her sister and be perfect and that led her to cheating on the SATs, something she probably never needed to do in the first place but her brain was taken over by the pressure she was feeling. Rob’s father’s past mistakes not just defined his social life and home life but led him to making choices to almost absolve him from the guilt he felt being associated with his father, choices that felt justified but also felt wrong and he was constantly straddling that grey area of right and wrong. By taking money from people who, in Rob’s opinion, wouldn’t miss it and giving it to those who need it more, he thought he was doing the opposite of what his father did and could somehow make up for what his family was responsible for. The judgement from others for what his father did and the reputation gained from that made Rob think that he needed to do something to help those who were hurt in what happened, but it didn’t mean he needed to play Robin Hood, even if his choices seemed to come from a good place. And with Maegan’s sister, Sam, she was the prime example of how bad decisions can come from living up to certain standards. I think for her, all of her bad decisions came about because she didn’t know what to do apart from being the best at her sport or to separate herself from the pressure of her parents, her scholarship, and her team. Her decisions were the ones that she didn’t realize she was making due to the pressure she was feeling until it was too late. But what is to be learned from all of the characters, and more beyond just these examples, is that one mistake doesn’t have to define your future and I think that’s one of the best takeaways you can get from this book. Sure, this is a theme you can find in many other books, but what I loved here was that Kemmerer didn’t sugar coat it or make the point as a throwaway comment; it was like she wanted to beat this point into our brains until it finally stuck and I think that’s what separates this contemporary from many others.

Another thing I loved about this book was how usually we see a female friendship fall apart and it’s one of the main focuses of the story, or if the male friendships are broken there are little to no emotions involved, but in this story it was the complete opposite. Not only did Rob lose his family, money, and reputation from his father’s mistake but he also lost his best friend and it really hurt him. Rob really thought that Connor was the one person he could always count on but when it all fell apart, no one was there for him and he had to walk around with that hurt for almost a year. He never understood why his friend wasn’t there for him, and on Connor’s part he didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to be there for his friend, but we learn it all goes back to Connor’s father later on. I loved that Kemmerer made Rob an incredibly emotional guy and while it seemed like he was holding it together and just trying to get by, everything kept piling up on him until he finally reached his breaking point. I rarely ever get to see male characters in YA actually feel something like that and have scenes where they’re actually sobbing, but it really helped to make this book more emotional and raw and real, or at least it did to me. Having Rob confront Connor about why he wasn’t there for him, and later having Connor need Rob to do the same for him, was really important for me to see and I really hope to see more male characters in YA act like this in the future.

The only thing I really didn’t like was Sam’s pregnancy plot and how she actually got pregnant. It’s not a horrible thing that happened to her, just something that grosses me out personally. But I did enjoy the various discussions of choice and being pro-choice and all the connotations associated with whatever decision Sam went it. It was good commentary, for sure, but it came up in a gross way.

I really don’t know how I finished this book in 24 hours, because it’s something I haven’t done in the longest time, but I think it goes to show how deeply this book can pull you in and ensnare you. You think you’re going to get a typical YA contemporary but as you read and really learn who these people are, and find out what the book is trying to tell you, it’s impossible to put down. You’re going to want a happy ending, and you’ll get some kind of happy ending, but this isn’t the kind of story that can be wrapped up neatly with a bow. What you will get is an ending that leaves you hopeful, one that really emphasizes the point of the whole book that even though you could be drowning in mistakes, they don’t define your future and there is always a light to give you hope.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Hardcover, 384 pages
Published June 25th 2019 by Bloomsbury YA

Book Synopsis

When his dad is caught embezzling funds from half the town, Rob goes from popular lacrosse player to social pariah. Even worse, his father’s failed suicide attempt leaves Rob and his mother responsible for his care.

Everyone thinks of Maegan as a typical overachiever, but she has a secret of her own after the pressure got to her last year. And when her sister comes home from college pregnant, keeping it from her parents might be more than she can handle.

When Rob and Maegan are paired together for a calculus project, they’re both reluctant to let anyone through the walls they’ve built. But when Maegan learns of Rob’s plan to fix the damage caused by his father, it could ruin more than their fragile new friendship…

This captivating, heartfelt novel asks the question: Is it okay to do something wrong for the right reasons?

Goodreads | Indigo | Amazon

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