The Takedown by Corrie Wang
Note: advanced copy received from publisher through NetGalley. (I don’t think that influences my review, but it’s fair to know.)
Kyla Cheng is a straight A senior at a fancy school in NYC. She’s one of four popular girls, her applications to the Ivy League schools are nearly ready, the hottest boy at school is her very close “just friend,” and her biggest problem is that her mom doesn’t seem to like her much now. Until a much bigger problem: a viral video of her having sex with a teacher. The video is fake, but Kyla has trouble convincing people of that. The only solution is to find the original file and delete. But Kyla’s hater is completely anonymous.
The Takedown is a surprisingly strong debut. It’s equal parts mystery, prep school drama, feminism, and exploring relationships. Set in a very possible future (advanced tech, female president, otherwise normal), it’s a healthy exploration of today’s problems through tomorrow’s tech. Wang builds her future world with care, showing rather than telling except when absolutely necessary. The speech patterns, especially of teens, are slightly more influenced by Internet chat styles, which seems viable. But it’s not overdone.
Kyla is a great character. The summary released by the author/publisher begins:
Kyla Cheng doesn’t expect you to like her. For the record, she doesn’t need you to.
She’s an accomplished popular girl and despite that introduction, the book wants you to like her. She’s the main character and I don’t really think she’s an anti-hero(ine). Maybe I’m just not reading the right books, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen a popular girl as a main character.
Which isn’t to say that she’s 100% likable. She’s not–like most real people, she has flaws. One of them, for instance, is being in an elitist Brooklyn bubble. Early in the book she says
if you’ve never been to New York City….txt me; we need to get you out more.
[Note: quote from ARC; may not reflect final publication. And “txt” is correct in the book.]
It’s condescending. A touch infuriating. But maybe that’s just because I haven’t been to NYC. Maybe I have an inferiority complex about it.
Anyway. Kyla is a powerful character and I think she fills a gap in YA.
Stuff I Liked
As I said, I like Kyla. I also like most of her relationships. She’s very tight with three other girls at her school, who encompass a small range of experiences, interests, and personalities. As the book goes on, she learns more about what she didn’t know about her friends, especially ways in which their experiences and identities blend more than she thought. Wang doesn’t fall into the trap of casting any of them in classic mean girl fashion or pointing out a single villain, which is nice.
Kyla has a complex family relationship, which is not perfect, but does involve all members caring about each other. Her parents aren’t absent from the plot, either. This is no orphaned (or practically orphaned) MC, thank goodness.
I don’t have a lot to say about her romantic relationship. It’s sweet.
The feminism and diversity threads are pretty strong here. Kyla is inspired by and constantly references the female president (which is cool) and at one point there’s a comment about the Caucasian student in their school being a minority. I have mixed feelings about the treatment of both topics, which I’ll address in a minute, but I think that their presence is positive.
The plot is great–moves quickly, keeps interest, doesn’t fall into tropes.
Stuff I Didn’t Like
I struggled with this section. Because there were definitely things I didn’t like about this book, but I’m not sure that is the book’s problem. So I’ll lay them out, but these are just individual opinions.
The elitism: I referenced this above, but there are a few times when Kyla really rubbed me the wrong way. She’s a little too proud of her NYC life, a little too moralistic, a touch too judgmental. And here’s the thing. I think I could be ok with those things if it was clear that those were intentional negative qualities and she learned better by the end. But I didn’t feel like the book sufficiently addressed all of that. And because it’s written in first-person, it’s nearly impossible to separate the author’s feelings from the character’s.
The supposed feminism: this is another area where I want to give the author the benefit of the doubt, but I’m just not sure. Kyla and her friends are proudly proclaimed feminists and, for example, they frequently scold Kyla’s brother for non-PC language (I didn’t hunt down the actual quotes, but it’s “cried like a girl” type statements). But Kyla and her friends regularly (constantly) call other girls “sluts” and have feuds going with girls at school. There’s definitely no sense of #GirlLove. Now, some of this is addressed and improved toward the end, but it just doesn’t feel like enough. However…
I think that most of these faults are probably realistic. So I’m not sure I should expect something better. But it’s mildly frustrating to read and it interfered with my ability to sympathize with the characters.
Despite my frustrations and concerns, The Takedown is a good book. It offers something new to the YA world and it opens conversations about really important topics. From a technical standpoint, it’s written well. It flows, the characters are developed well, the plot is riveting. I think it’s worth reading. Just keep your brain engaged.