My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Initial reaction: I don’t think I have a single positive thing to say about “To Be Maria”. The characters were one dimensional, there were spelling and grammar errors in copious amounts through the narrative, none of the situations felt realistic and all of the tough subject matter was trivialized to the point of no suspension of disbelief. There was rampant misogyny, slut shaming, bitch slamming, girl on girl hate, utterly inaccurate and offensive depiction of foreign characters, odd plot structure and transitions to the point where this book did not know what it wanted to be, and the worst possible ending to every bit of events this story had to offer.
I feel like I really wasted my time here, and it hurts to say it.
I’ll admit I can’t pull the punch from my words in my initial thoughts surrounding “To Be Maria”, because for a premise with a lot of heavy weights to the topics it touches – the progression, the writing, the structure, and characters involved in this tale could not be further from the realistic grounding its based upon.
I think for this review, I’m going to cut to the chase after I write a brief synopsis on what this story is about. I have to divide this into sections as far as the problems I saw in this narrative were concerned, because they all factored into how this didn’t work for me at all. I honestly don’t think this felt like a fully finished novel, and even considering that, it would have to go back to the drawing board to address a lot of problematic issues with its core. I’m going to be as constructive as I can be with this, so without further ado, here we go.
“To Be Maria”, at its primary heart, is a story about a high school senior trying to fit in with the popular crowd, and the spiral that occurs within that measure. The young woman, Anya, is a social outcast and one who comes from a poor family – with an abusive brother hooked on drugs and has left the family for the streets, a neglectful father, and a younger sister who doesn’t seem to care either which way. Anya’s pretty much on her own, with her only friend at school named Patrick, a boy who moved into town from Dublin, Ireland when they were kids. She’s bullied at school by a group of girls who are a part of the in-crowd, and at the point where this narrative stars, Anya recognizes a new girl that joins their ranks – 17-year old Maria, who has moved to their town as a student from Spain.
Anya wants to be everything that Maria embodies – have the beautiful clothes, assertiveness, popularity – but isn’t fond of the company she keeps. When Anya suddenly has an invite to Maria’s circles and a chance at an acting scholarship, it’s one that she jumps into with both feet. But it doesn’t come without costs that escalate to a breaking point that put the girls in dangerous territory.
Sounds intriguing, right? I was lured by the blurb and the enticing cover from NetGalley. (Plus the author was nice enough to grant me permission to share the first chapter on my blog – I featured it on last Wednesday’s “Writer Wednesday” feature” (6/5/13).
However, and this is a significant “however”, I think the blurb is more enticing than the actual product was concerned, because it didn’t deliver on so many counts for a novel of its respective weight. I suppose if I’m trying to say something positive about the book – it’s at least centered around some heavy themes and it starts out like it will approach something interesting (albeit flaws), but it doesn’t deliver.
Let’s begin with the problematic dimensions in terms of structure, then content:
Spelling and Grammar
This was a big deal, enough that it really threw me out of the book more than a few times. Even with an ARC, I understand there are going to be errors, but there were too many throughout the narrative that really bothered me as I went along. I think they could’ve been caught with a more thorough read through or beta readers. I could take maybe one or two errors for substitution (such as “to” for “too”, and “you’re” for “your”), but there were more significant errors like “confidant” for “confident” and others that drove me up the wall as I saw them through the narrative. My AP English teacher would’ve probably put a big red X through several pages in this book (and I would know, she did that for my essay on Henry VIII).
There were far too many of the minor ones to count alongside the major ones, and my grammar goddess was enraged. For a final product, or something close to one, it should not have had this many errors within it.
Multiple POV set/”head-hopping”
This narrative probably would’ve worked better as maybe one central POV or two POVs. Rather, this book had more than five perspective points within it, and I couldn’t begin to keep up with them all because they weren’t distinct, separated, or given any kind of easy transition. That’s too many if you don’t know how to sequence them well or give them distinction in the character voices. You risk losing the reader if you have more than three, and I know this is a lesson I had to learn in writing. The narrative head hops felt tedious, and even with their respective length didn’t provide enough depth of character to be able to empathize/sympathize with their perspective in the narrative. I can probably expound upon the characterizations in detail later, but to name a few of the POV sets in this book:
Nadia Cummings, Anya and Maria’s teacher
Patrick, Anya’s friend
Carly, Anya’s bully and Maria’s friend
Angela and Greg Newman, Carly’s parents
Alex, charismatic yet dangerous leader
…and so forth. There were too many and some of them could’ve been cut easily out of the narrative without missing much. They didn’t add to some of the rolling action or heart of the conflict, just made the narrative longer than what it should’ve been.
Which leads me to…
Stilted dialogue and internal monologues
“To be Maria” suffered from a lot of stilted dialogue and internal monologues, some of which could’ve been easily cut in length. Some of it made the dialogue seem juvenile and much younger than the characters were for their respective ages. For an example of the internal monologue, take this selection:
“The smirk on Carly’s face and the mocking tone in her voice infuriates Maria. She longs to give Carly a bloody nose. It wouldn’t be her first time to strike someone. She got into fights with other girls when she was younger, so the feel of Carly’s face reverberating off her fist would not make her recoil. In fact, it would give her a rush of adrenaline. Yet, a small voice inside her head screams ‘no’. If you punch Carly, it will go around the school in a matter of minutes and you will be more hated than Anya and Patrick. Shondra will kick you out of her parents’ home and then where will you go? You can’t go back to your parents’ place, not after the fight you had with them. “That’s a good idea. Are you going to help me?” Maria realizes how pathetic that question is the second after she finishes speaking it. God, I feel like an idiot.“
For an example of the stilted dialogue, I point you to this passage where Anya’s entering Jose’s party.
“The minute it opens, Anya’s heart starts to pound hard against her chest, so hard that it almost makes her sick. Come on, Anya. Jose invited you here, so he won’t snub you. Breathe, just breathe.
“Maria,” Jose says, making his voice loud and boisterous.
To Anya, the pitch in his tone is incredibly annoying.
“You’re here, and you brought Anya.”
Anya can’t tell if he’s being playful or outright sarcastic.
“You invited her, so you won’t pull anything on her, you hear?”
“Hey, Maria, I was just kidding,” He says, looking put off by the brusque tone in her voice. “Welcome to my mansion, Anya.”
“Thank you, Jose,” she says, stepping inside of the large house.”
There are far more examples, but for the sake of the length of this review, I can’t quote more than that.
Which leads me into the content of the work, starting with “Plot.”
The plot is actually less solid than the premise would have one believe. Anya is indeed a social outcast invited “as a dare” to be a part of Carly’s circles, of which Maria is a part of. Anya doesn’t know about the dare, and simply drops her life long best friend like a hot potato and goes traversing with the popular crowd, trying to vie for an acting scholarship and be “like” Maria. There are so many static, contradictory go-betweens in this narrative that I couldn’t name them all. I definitely saw that this book was trying to illustrate extreme examples of bullying, facing up to “mean girls” and the tragic circumstances that occur when students lose their way, drop out of school, get cornered into a life of violence and drugs, but none of the overarching narrative felt authentic, raw, or with true grit to me.
The story often heavily handed revelations down to the point of telling the reader everything, versus showing and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. The story milks all of these scenarios – bullying, domestic abuse, drug use, power struggles in school – for drama. People wouldn’t act in the ways that some of the characters do here, not with such exaggerations. It threw me out of the book many times when my suspension of disbelief couldn’t be maintained. Still, it was a part of the plot sequence leading up to a tragedy that happens about 80% into the book, and by that point, it was hard to care about it, because there was really no true coming to terms for Anya or Maria or what their decisions and/or experiences had led up to.
I did not like any of the characters in this book. Normally, even if I don’t like the characters in a work, as long as I can see where their thought process and sympathize for the situations they come across, I can usually still like the story. Not in this case.
Anya was insufferable. She seemed much younger than 17 years old, she’s quick to slut shame and to temper, she values popularity over longevity (which I could see this being a lesson to be learned from, but I don’t think at any point in the narrative, she truly did). I wanted to feel bad for her, especially considering the extent to which the bullying against her escalates, but it was very hard for me to sympathize when she was combative against everything and everyone in her life. She blamed her sister for losing her job (said sister’s laughing could be over heard in the phone), but it was oversleeping and being late for work that likely led to Anya’s termination. She blames her family for her circumstances (which could have some weight considering factors), but rarely takes initiative for herself. The ending feels more like she’s walking away from things not for a sense of strength, but walking away like she did her friendships among other things.
Maria wasn’t much better. She was very self-absorbed and while I wish I could say I sympathized with her struggle to fit in and project an image of confidence, the decisions and contradictions she has in her actions often clashed so much that it was hard to follow what she came to terms with – if anything at all.
What really had me up the wall were the projections of the adults in this book. Seriously, for the teacher to utter a racist remark about Maria’s notes not being helpful because of her nationality, knowing that she was from Spain? It boiled my blood that there were no repercussions against that teacher (though the teens do speak against it). Further, all of the adults in this book who are supposed to be authority figures in the school acted in just as juvenile measures as the teens. Even the doctor who treats Anya following the bullying consequences was odd. He didn’t feel the least bit authentic with his words or actions. It really wouldn’t happen that way in real life.
Problematic elements (sexism, slut shaming, etc.)
I couldn’t with the rampant slut shaming, drawn attention to the “slutty” or nearly naked clothing that the characters took note of in constant, repeated assertions through the narrative. If I had to hear about another denouncement over a character having their breasts nearly hanging out, it would be too soon. As if it were a reflection that all teenagers act/dress/talk this way on a regular basis. *rolls eyes* The sexism was also a problem in that it seemed that all of the *boys* in this book picked up on that factor as well. Even Patrick, supposedly lovable Patrick who was Anya’s friend and even wrote a song for her, had the nerve to call Maria a “slut” based on her clothes and nationality. I was beyond floored.
One could also see it as problematic when Anya and Maria drop out of school not only on account of the bullying (though Carly does get called out and punished for the mean girl manipulations), but also to rebel against their lives. It’s drawn in a staggered progression, which made it hard to follow when they ended up with Alex and the dangerous encounters with respect to Anya’s lost brother. I had a hard time following the narrative in those turns because of the head-hopping and contradictory elements in the narrative.
In sum, it’s not a book I would recommend, and I’ll leave it at that.
Overall score: 0.5/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher.