I admit, it’s been a good, long time since I read a book set in a modern day high school. Young adult novels have teenage protagonists, sure, but the situations are so extreme that I almost don’t notice it. But when it comes to things like SATs, college applications, drivers licenses? It’s been a long time. So needless to say This May End Badly threw me off a little in the beginning.
I’m so happy I stuck it out though, because the story was an absolute roller coaster that took several turns into the unexpected, and after I got about a quarter of the way through, I had a very hard time putting it down.
This May End Badly follows Dorothy “Doe” Saltpeter in her last year at Weston, an all-girls boarding school. Their long standing rivalry with Winfield Academy, the boy’s school across the street gets turned up to eleven when the administration announces that the two institutions will merge the next year, becoming one coed school. Doe, who is adamant that the merger not take place, is furious.
The war between the schools surpasses normal academic rivalry, often escalating into more and more elaborate pranks. News of the merger leads Doe and her friends to step up their game even more: if they can prove the two schools won’t get along, then the two simply cannot join together.
But Doe’s rivalries extend beyond the schools themselves and into the personal. Specifically, a rivalry with Three, the most popular boy at Winfield, and son of one of the school’s wealthy benefactors. Wanting to get under his skin to fuel the fires of the inter-school war, she makes a deal with Wells, Three’s cousin. The two of them pretend to date, because it bothers Three, and in exchange, she will help him settle an old score of his own with his cousin.
Between the prank war and the fake dating, the book already had a lot going on, and a lot going for it. But as it continued, a lot of more serious issues began to come to light, forcing the characters to decide what it is that really matters to them.
Ultimately, I think the book is less about the plot per se, and more an examination of growing up. Neither Doe nor Wells’ stories end in the way I might have expected, and I think that’s a good thing. If they’d gotten their way, as they wanted from the beginning, then they would still have to live with the consequences of their actions. And it’s not that the conclusion is consequence free, but rather consequences they can live with, and even be proud of.
Samantha Markhum does a great job with her characters. I admit I found Doe to be a little intense and insufferable at first, and it was a huge relief to find out that that was sort of the point all along. Her relationships with her friends, her rivals, and her fake (but maybe not so fake?) boyfriend feel lived-in and real. There is also the absence of the sort of unrealistic intensity you usually see in fictional teenagers. Disagreements can be put aside to unite in common cause, students don’t follow each other around like lemmings. Teenagers acting like teenagers. What a concept.
I began this book with the assumption that I’m too old for “high school books”. An assumption I was only too happy to have proven wrong. This May End Badly was a surprisingly delightful, thoughtful look at what it means to grow up, and how that doesn’t have to mean compromising yourself in the process.
This May End Badly is out April 12, 2022. Special thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy for review purposes.
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