It’s confirmed. Summers has weaseled her way into way into my cold, bleak heart. But really, where else would she belong? The lady is master craftsman of darkness. She’s definitely working her way up my list of amazing contemporary YA authors. I knew what to expect from Cracked Up to Be based on my experience with TINAT and some of the reviews I’d scanned. People are divided on this novel and many do not like the characters in this novel, especially the main character. And I have to say, Parker Findlay is one of the most unlikable characters I read in YA. However, unlikable does not equate unsympathetic.
I’ve been trying to write this review for weeks. And this is not the book’s problem. The book is excellent. This is my problem. I just can’t seem to figure out what I want to say about it. I think that’s partly because it’s better to just dive into this book and let it take you where ever it takes you. And that might be anger. Parker is a character you will either get or you won’t. Not like. Get. I can’t really see anyone really liking Parker. You’ll either understand where she’s coming from or she’ll infuriate you. Or she’ll do both. I get Parker, but I stilled want to shake the stubborn out of her. It’s terribly hard to watch someone fight so hard to make everyone hate her the way she hates herself.
Let’s take a second to review the story (you know the part where spoilers happen for the rest of the review) – a student goes missing from a party at the end of the school year. Now her friends are trying to figure out what to do with the shadow of her disappearance looming over them. The one suffering the most is Parker – Jessie’s best friend and the most popular girl in school. The most perfect girl. Until Jessie disappears. And now that Jessie’s gone, Parker is being the very best hot mess she can be. But we don’t know all of this at the beginning of the novel. All we know at the start is that Parker is about to flunk out of school. She has to make every class and every assignment for the rest of the year or she’s out. And not drinking at or come to school drunk anymore. We learn about Jessie’s involvement in Parker’s life slowly over the course of the novel. Starting with the terribly sad moments where Parker frantically digs through the dirt looking for signs of her friend. Parker’s not openly suffocating in her loss; she’s slowly drowning in vices.
Parker’s friends also lost Jessie, but they’re coping better. Becky has taken over Parker’s place as head girl and Chris is so stuck on Parker that he’s not thinking about Jessie at all. The only one suffering like Parker is Evan. They’ve both been carrying the burden of guilt. Both feel responsible for Jessie’s disappearance. Let me be very clear here – Parker’s guilt is no excuse for the way she treats people. It’s unforgivable. But it’s her unapologetic nature that makes me like her. She is a disaster and that’s exactly how she wants it. In fact, she wants to be more of a disaster. The more people look out for her, the more she acts out. The more she thinks someone might genuinely care, the more she hates herself.
I like current Parker way more that I would have like original Parker. The cookie cutter, perfect everything, stressed to the nines, head cheerleader. Original Parker was boring. And everyone loved her. This is one of the greatest character flaws with not only modern YA but in the way we look at teenagers in general. It’s one of the reasons people have such a hard time relating to Parker. There’s this assumption that teens are only worth our time if they’re perfect. Any sign of flaws or mistakes or just indications that they’re a teenager and suddenly they’re not worth anyone’s time anymore. But if they’re making the most of everything, then we must gush over them. If they instantly learn for any tiny mistake, they are worth it. Parker’s parents a prime example of the damage parents can cause with their intense need for perfect children. They are damn aggravating. They keep harping back to who she used to be. The daughter she used to be. The girl they loved. The better, happier, perfect version of Parker. Not this girl she’s become. This girl they don’t love as much. Something no parent will ever admit, but Parker knows. She can feel it. This Parker is less loved. And the more they want her to be what she was, the harder she pushes them away.
Trouble is – Parker was never actually okay. There was always something wrong with her. She knows that. Even in her perfection, she knew that she wasn’t right. But she was never allowed to talk about it. Never wanted to talk about it or admit it. Never gave herself permission to be less than. She was obsessive. Obsessed with being Perfect. Yes, capital P Perfect. And this makes her blessed in the eyes of those around her. From the time she was a child, she was determined to be the best. If something was wrong she just kept redoing it until it was the best and panicked or raged when other people received praise for less than perfect work. It was this drive for perfection that led her to the events of Jessie’s disappearance.
Part of Parker’s trouble comes from the people in her life. She is constantly surrounded by people who reflect what she used to be. The person she gave up. Chris and Becky are two of the most annoying teen characters I’ve ever read – partially because they read realistic. Becky is the girl desperate to be on top – simply because it’s the top. She wants to be the good girl, but in that a-typical, popular, what makes her look good style. Not an actual person who does good things. She gave Parker a bottle of alcohol at school… She wanted her to get kicked out. This is not what good people do. And Chris is the worst. The worst! He plays with Parker and Becky. He claims to still love Parker. He won’t accept that she’s changed, but he also isn’t doing anything to really help her. His hot and cold attention, even after he starts dating Becky, only serves to make matters worse. Their actions prove to Parker that she is replaceable. Simply a placeholder. But at the same time, she clings to this idea that these people love her the most. She has to be nothing and everything to everyone. How can someone think that and not end up a confused, self-destructive mess? Parker’s been influenced by the people around her, but the most destructive force in her life is herself.
I guess that’s what I really take from this novel the most. We are harder on ourselves than anyone else is. Parker doesn’t reach out when she sees Jessie’s rape. Not because she doesn’t realize what happened was wrong but because she’s ashamed of her own behaviour. She doesn’t want to be questioned about how drunk she was the night of the party. She doesn’t want to have to admit that she lost control. She doesn’t want anyone to know. She believes that she caused all the problems. That caused the rape. That caused Jessie’s death. She never gives anyone the chance to tell her that she didn’t. That what happened wasn’t her fault. That there were a confluence of events that led up that moment.
Parker’s personal destruction is more than just a story for teens. It’s about allowing the things you believe about yourself to become so true that they end up tearing you apart. Stifling your options because of the one thing that defines you until something goes wrong and topples the whole tower. An identity crisis can bring down the people we see as the strongest because we can’t see the entire picture. And sometimes, finding the right way to help that person can be nearly impossible to do. Anyone can fall apart and it’s never pretty. Be nice to yourself. Just do it. If you take nothing else from this novel. If you can’t find a way to understand Parker, understand that.