“Call It What You Want” is another example of fine writing by Brigid Kemmerer, author of “A Curse So Dark and Lonely.” One of her talents is writing about people by using such effective dialogue and narrative style and technique that her characters become extremely realistic and worthy of compassion. Her two main characters in this novel are both flawed teenagers, but in spite of — or perhaps because of — those shortcomings, they grow insightful and compassionate, and they help right wrongs. The story is told in alternating first person narratives, a strategy which works well to make readers feel that they understand each character’s feelings and motivations.
Maegan is the daughter of a cop, and while she has been held to high expectations, she has also been caught cheating during an SAT exam. All of the other students’ exams have been voided, and she feels as if she has been branded with a huge CHEAT on her forehead. She keeps her head down in school, and the only friend she has left is Rachel. But lately, Rachel’s new boyfriend Drew has been making derogatory comments about Maegan, and Maegan is hurt that Rachel doesn’t stand up for her.
Rob had everything — money, athletics, good looks. But then his father was arrested for defrauding his clients of their money. After a failed suicide attempt, his father is now a body that must be tube-fed, cannot talk or even respond to stimuli, and lives with Rob and his mother in the now-empty mansion that they have called home for years. Many of the parents of his fellow students lost money because of Rob’s father. Even the school librarian is now still working because his retirement money had been invested with Rob’s father. And his friends and acquaintances wonder how much Rob knew about the theft. The worst loss was his best friend, Connor, who didn’t come when Rob needed him and now is openly hostile to Rob.
When Rob and Maegan are paired up for a calculus project, it’s awkward at first. But as they get to know and eventually trust each other, a wonderful thing happens. They start questioning what is going on in each of their lives, their behaviors, and what is right and wrong.
Readers, too, will be forced to think about haves and have-nots. Is it okay for someone to take something from someone who is so wealthy they won’t even know it’s gone in order to give it to someone who desperately needs it? A friend of Rob’s gets a free meal, a cheese sandwich, from the school. He’s ridiculed for it. Yet the wealthy students don’t mind splurging on cookies so that the lacrosse team can buy new sticks.
The divide between those who have a lot and those who struggle to survive will make readers pause and examine their own beliefs. Rob thinks about what he used to take for granted, and he regrets much of his old behavior. He’s torn between hating his father for what he did, but also loving his father because no matter what, he was a wonderful father.
There are good people, forgiving people, and villains in this story. But at its core, it’s about forgiveness, growing, and having compassion. Not only is this is an engrossing novel that, once begun, is difficult to put down, it would also be a great choice for a class read or a book club.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Bloomsbury, the publisher, for review purposes.