Every school is its own little world, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of composing a school story is creating your personal version of that world, with its traditions, customs, even a private language. (In such famous schools as Eaton and Winchester they’re extremely elaborate.) So it was a pleasure to pick up on Dana Mele’s practices at Bates Academy, which like the Halloween plunge into the lake and the Dear Valentine presents were very nicely integrated into the plot. Some seemed to me rather unlikely. The Dear Valentine anonymous presents – a surefire divisive popularity contest – seemed like a terrible idea in a school full of teenage girls. I was most attracted by the narrator, Kay, the captain of the soccer team and a seemingly queen bee mean girl, though we discover she is from a modest background, desperately needs to win a scholarship to college, dresses fashionably by borrowing or even stealing other girls’ clothes, and has some really dark secrets that haunt her, which gradually unfold in the story. I would love to be able to create such a character. Superficially she resembles Jessica Knoll’s Ani, but I found Kay much better developed and more sympathetic – not despite but because of her manifold character flaws.
Artistically, I had some problems. All the narration is Kay’s, which means that preserving the suspense requires hiding (though hinting) much of the dark past. For me this kind of narrator seems very artificial; we know she is teasing us. There are also too many minor characters – other schoolgirls who are in the story mostly to be victims, as well as a couple of boys from the town. But two other schoolgirls are fascinating characters: Brie and Nola. Brie is Kay’s BF and mostly the love of her life with whom she’s obsessed, though it seems like their relationship is constantly thrown off track, as Kay is also attracted to a townie boy named Spencer. I found the characters’ sexual fluidity one of the novel’s most enjoyable features, though Kay’s strongest attraction is clearly to Brie. Kay’s other principal confederate is Nola, a girl from an even wealthier family than Brie’s. I loved the episode when Kay goes to visit her extremely dysfunctional family in a mansion on the coast of Maine. But it was confusing to have so much of the story told through dialogue, much of which doesn’t advance the plot very much. The characters lack the sophistication and polish to be amusing (unlike some books set in major English Public Schools where the boys sound like minor characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray). I think the book might have been a third shorter as told entirely from Kay’s POV but in third person. But I can imagine it at the same length, but with chapters from Nola’s and Brie’s angle too. That would be my notion of a five-star.
Though I found People Like Us flawed and the story dragged, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Kay’s contradictory mix of outer hardness and inward extreme vulnerability made her someone you want to love and protect. At times I wanted to scream at her, but I always cared about her. Definitely one of the better school stories I’ve read recently.