Outward Blonde by Trish Cook
Published: October 18th, 2016 by Adaptive Books
Genre: Contemporary YA
Page Count: 280 in my ARC, but the back of the ARC says 320 so I'd go with that.
Part of a series? Nope.
Got via: The publisher sent me a copy for review consideration.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound
Summary (from goodreads): Sixteen-year-old Lizzie Finkelstein is a hard-partying socialite who lives a charmed life with her mother in Manhattan. After a public drunken sexual escapade results in both an arrest and an embarrassing viral video online, Lizzie’s parents stage a late night intervention. Lizzie finds herself whisked away to Utah to learn a lesson or two about taking responsibility at Camp Smiley, a wilderness survival program for troubled kids.
Camp Smiley is a far cry from Lizzie’s high society life in New York. Without her stable of luxury hair/makeup items, her teacup Pomeranian, contact with the outside world or access to social media, Lizzie must face the harsh conditions of the outdoors. Grouped with troubled campers in which she’s certain she has nothing in common (except Jack, who’s pretty hot), Lizzie must now learn to dig her own toilet in the woods and build a fire by rubbing two sticks together before the camp will ever let her go back to her former existence. She has a choice: get with the program, or get out of there.
Review: Let's get this out of the way - I didn't like this. The writing is fine. The writing is probably the best part of the book, as it's engaging and entertaining. If you can ignore the representation of the real life thing, and you enjoy kind of that chick flick feel type of book, you would probably like this fine. I could not do that. There will probably be spoilers in this review, and I apologize for that, but I feel they are necessary.
To explain something - Adaptive Books basically publishes books based on movies, to put it in a way that amuses me. More specifically and more accurately, they re-purpose abandoned movie scripts and screenplays into books. I think that's a really unique idea. Outward Blonde was based on a script that was going to be a Hilary Duff movie, and as someone who has seen a lot of Hilary Duff movies, I can totally see that. (Which might also be a way to figure out if you'd like this - I imagine if you're a fan of, say, Material Girls, you'd probably be into this.)
Part of me actually wonders if the movie didn't get made because of another movie released a few years ago. This is all me speculating, but Hilary Duff hasn't really played a teenager in a few years, which would be right about the time Brat Camp, a Mila Kunis movie, came out.
This I bring up to say - I think the camp aspects of this book are incredibly mishandled, and because of the origins of this story, I am not sure that's entirely the author's fault. If this is the story she was given to work with and she could only change so much, I think she did the best job possible. However, what it comes down to, is I think this book is based on something in real life that is at best ineffective and at worst deadly. And that is something I cannot get behind.
Plot Talk: Simple plot - rich girl gets really drunk, gets arrested, gets sent away to wilderness camp, deals. I think this is a messed up plot because of reasons I will get to in my "Cons" section, but the actual execution of it is fine. It doesn't drag or anything.
Characters: Lizzie is an incredibly privileged girl, and I had issues with her now and then. A lot of it improves, especially her self-esteem, but even at the end of the book moments when I had issues with her. The idea that women in Africa who make and sell their own fashion want or need a rich sixteen year old white girl to sell their things in the US is, uh... probably something that should have been edited out. She's pretty typical fare for this type of book, honestly. Okay, but not my favourite.
I did think it was neat that Lizzie has a chronic illness. She has IBS, and that's a really neat idea... that is not treated very well by the book. A therapist in the book says her IBS and acne are being triggered by stress (and not washing her face for three days in the woods clears up her acne... as everyone with acne knows, not washing your face does that). Meanwhile, she's been eating tons of beans and dried fruit at camp, which are foods that can cause IBS symptoms to flare up. You, uh. Don't think that might be connected to it?
I was pretty meh about the other characters. They fell flat for me. I'll say it was nice not everyone was white and straight, but I'm still pretty meh about them. One of the characters, Lizzie's love interest specifically, cyber-bullied another kid, who attempted suicide. We are supposed to be sympathetic to this character. I was not.
PG-13 stuff: There's underage drinking, sexual content, a lot of cursing, toilet humour, and a lot of it feels gratuitous, frankly. A lot of it feels like cheap movie comedy, if you know what I mean.
Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: Hooboy. So let's do this thing. My biggest problem with this book is it feels like someone say Holes and thought, "Hey, Camp Green Lake was actually a good idea!"
I think most of these wilderness programs are either useless because they're run by untrained, unqualified people, or straight-up dangerous for the same reason. The book mentions Outward Bound, and obviously the title is based on that. I did some research, and Outward Bound seems like a completely different beast than these types of programs the book is using. For one, people who do it actually consent to the experience. (Article about a death in an Outward Bound program found here, for fairness' sake.) I'm not going to go into my own feelings about that particular program, but people do consent.
Let me make this clear - Lizzie's parents hire people to come take her away in the middle of the night, and she is not allowed to leave the camp. This makes Camp Smiley the other kind of wilderness program, which I will be calling a brat camp through this review for clarity's sake.
Brat camps are dangerous. (Link one here.) They take advantage of scared parents, but they also take advantage of abusers. There are some that include conversion "therapy" used against queer teens. Kids are injured, are physically, emotionally, and sexually abused, die, and are left with emotional trauma they have to deal with for years. There is no evidence these brat camps work, although things haven't been researched well, but what evidence there is suggests they make things worse.
At one point in the book, Lizzie and her friends escape from camp and run away. They hitchhike, and they ride in the bed of a pick-up truck because there aren't enough seatbelts. I do not believe you could research enough to write this book, and not know about Bruce Staeger. After spending two years in a brat camp, he was killed there while riding in the bed of a pickup truck when it rolled, as the camp officials had ignored orders regarding seat belts.
Many of these articles I'm linking talk about food deprivation and even starvation. Once during the book, Lizzie is denied s'mores with the others. The articles about these camps talk about teenagers being called liars or fakers over things that injure or ultimately could kill them like dehydration, heat stroke, or seizures. Lizzie is called a liar when she runs away into the woods, a raccoon steals her baby blanket, and she tries to tell someone. Maybe these parallels are coincidences - I sure hope they are! - but they illustrate how lightly this subject is taken compared to the seriousness of its nature.
I think I've made my point that I think this is not well handled, so I'll just share my links so you can read up on this yourself. Here's one, here's two. For fairness sake, I'm going to include the experience of a parent who found one of these brat camps a positive for her child (although please do note the fact she's completely okay admitting she drugged her teenage daughter with sleeping pills... just saying), and another who had mixed feelings. Here is one and two articles from people who were sent to these programs. And, finally, here is a 1995 article from a magazine, because I want to point out this is not a new phenomenon, and neither are the deaths related to it. Please be warned there is very disturbing content at most if not all of these links, including fairly graphic descriptions of the deaths of teenagers. I think these are important articles to read, but be kind to yourself, please. The first link in this paragraph has the least graphic content, and is similar in tone to what I have written here.
Other things - this book uses a ton of references. At one point, Lizzie matches with James Franco on Tinder and tries to hook up with him. Besides the fact the book literally has him say he didn't know the girl he actually hit on was under eighteen, which is, um, not true (and frankly, a really gross stance to take considering Lizzie isn't even 17 yet), it's a very, very dating reference. There are tons of these. Some of them I honestly don't even think are believable, like Lizzie suggesting she would volunteer as tribute for any of the other kids at camp were this the Hunger Games. It's borderline trying too hard at times, including the overuse of AAVE in a book with no black characters.
Well, besides the ones in Africa who never appear who made the "weird pajama pants" Lizzie's dad gives her, who Lizzie, the seventeen year old white girl, think need her to market the fashion they make and already sell on their own. I know I already mentioned that, but it really bugged me.
There is also a scene where Lizzie tries to use her baby blanket to pick up a raccoon and carry it around. It was obviously meant to be funny. Mostly I cringed. That seemed so cheesy comedy movie, you know? I didn't believe anyone could actually think they could find a wild raccoon in the woods and make it their friend. That's just... no.
The book also tends to be somewhat fatphobic and weirdly slut-shamy and also virgin-shamey at the same time. It's weird. I wasn't a fan. And one more pet peeve - the book also tries to tell us, as I stated before, that stress is triggering Lizzie's acne. Apparently her first three days in the woods where she does not wash her face are not stressful. Because everyone with acne knows not washing your face helps your zits a lot, right??
Cover comments: It's very cute, and catches the mood of what they were trying to do. I also did enjoy all the "extra" things the book included like medical reports and lists and things like that. I like it when a book adds in that kind of thing.
Conclusion: I've been thinking about this book for like two days as I write this review (yeah, it took a long time) and I realized I wanted this to be more like Little Blog on the Prairie. I wanted cute and funny, and the book tries, but the subject matter is so serious I can't buy into the cute and funny. And you know, honestly, the Outward Bound approach might have even been better in this book, if it had involved Lizzie's entire family doing wilderness stuff to bond and work through their issues, and not her actually being kidnapped into something against her will.
I enjoyed Notes from the Blender, and by no means do I think Trish Cook is a bad writer. But I think this subject matter, with the deaths and abuse in it in real life, can't work as a comedic source. I think when you end the book with Lizzie improving from the program, you are essentially endorsing these programs. With everything out there I've read now, I just cannot believe that is safe to do. I wrote most of this review before the US election result was announced. The soon to be vice president of the US believes in conversion therapy. With the current state of things in the US, I think these programs will only become more dangerous than they already are, and because of that, I can't give this more than one rose.
- I'm going to start keeping track of when books have characters share mascara. YOU'RE GOING TO GET AN EYE INFECTION.
Peace and cookies,