Review of Everything You Want Me to Be, by Mindy Mejia

Broken but Beautiful - Farming Barn @  Zimmerman, MN

This novel is in a rural county town in south east Minnesota called Pine Valley; here in Iowa I visit similar towns with no Perkins Restaurant every week & I found the depiction of the residents & the atmosphere perfect. I have never taught high school, much less @ a rural high school, but many of my former students have and report back that their students are “monsters” too. Hattie Hoffman, the protagonist, is a Thespian who has been cast for the high-school production of Shakespeare as Lady Macbeth, but by the second chapter she has become a murder victim. We get her story in flashbacks, as well a that of Peter, her English teacher, and in the present the POV of Del, the county sheriff who is the principal investigator. Tho’ the book is little weak on characterization & the story loses momentum toward the end, this is an excellent read.

When I read school stories I test the authenticity of the characters against my own schoolboy memories & my experience as a teacher, tho’ @ university. I ask, would I have felt & done what these characters feel & do? There I have some problems with both Hattie & Peter. Usually when teenagers are strongly attracted to an older adult, they endow that adult with a level of sophistication and savoir faire lacking in contemporaries & fellow students. Peter hardly seems to come up to what we’d expect to be Hattie’s standard – but then the choices in Pine Valley are very limited. I very much like Hattie’s being the instigator, like Thea Atwell in Anton DiSclafani’s Yonahlossee Riding Camp. Thea is an equestrienne, Hattie an aspiring actor, but both are very talented and determined to go for what they want. I found Peter too vacillating – in Shakespearean terms he is more like Hamlet tho’ one could compare him to Macbeth too. Personally in his situation, stuck in the boonies with a wife who seems to care more for her demented mother and the family farm than for her marriage, I’d have succumbed to an attractive & talented student who worshipped me faster than a heartbeat. How soon later would I have realized I’d cast my career, my marriage, and my fate to the winds? But when it happens, as a colleague advised me once when I was feeling the hot breath of Nemesis on the back of my neck, when you’re going down for the third time anyway, you might as well enjoy it. When things start to go pear shaped for Peter, he seemed to me indecisive, sanctimonious & cowardly. Hattie was much braver & more beautiful than he deserved, which raises her story to the level of tragedy.

The final quarter seemed much weaker, tho’ the very end is bitterly ironic & strangely satisfying. But I found Hattie extremely attractive. I’m currently attempting to write a school story myself with a character who is a Thespian & Hattie is an inspiration for me. Had I been Peter, I would have given Hattie the keys to my car & the keys to my heart & let her drive. It wouldn’t have turned out any worse & the ride would have been great while it lasted. And no bus tickets would be required.

Judged by the standard of Yohnalossee Riding Camp, not to mention the Autobahn intensity of Heather Lewis’s House Rules, Everything You Want Me to Be is a bit tepid. But it is a very enjoyable and engaging school story. I am grateful to Simon & Schuster & to NetGalley for a gratis advance copy.

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