***** SPOILER WARNING *****
I wanted to like this book because of it's initial appeal to me:
1) The catchy name of the title caught my attention.
2) An interesting beginning where the protagonist Rhonda explains what happened to her as a freshman in mathematical terms:
Questions They Never Ask on the SAT
A very smart, attention-starved freshman (subject X) falls for the most popular guy in her class (subject Y). If X and Y date for at least three months, which of the following extra-curricular activities is X most likely to be involved in?
A: Backseat anatomy lessons, clothing optional.
B: Accuracy and precision experiments involving peeing onto a little plastic stick.
C: Two-hour biology lectures from a very disappointed father.
D: Field trips across state lines for "routine" medical procedures.
E: Proving the statistical fallacy of the statement, "It can't happen to me."
Notes: More than one answer may apply.
3) The story is set in Columbia, SC, my hometown.
So, given all that, I had relatively high hopes. While the basic premise was good there were too many minor things that when they're added up caused me to downgrade it to **.
In her freshman year, Rhonda dated, got impregnated by, and ditched by the star basketball player, who is a rich obnoxious troll. He denies responsibility and throws money at her to "take care of it." But because his father is physically abusive to him and expects perfection, she "protects" his reputation and tells no one about getting pregnant (and prevents her dad from opening a can of whupass on him).
She blames her dad for "forcing" her to get an abortion and he becomes an overbearing tyrant, constantly harping on the past and accusing her of imagined misdeeds. He's never hugged or kissed her since the incident and is focusing all his affection on the much younger woman he is now dating. So her home life is pretty crappy.
Ever since then she has faded into the background. She is now a Senior and is totally invested in winning a full-ride scholarship to Georgia Tech for their mechanical engineering program. Guys are trouble to be avoided (one guess where this is heading...).
She is math tutoring younger kids after school when she is assigned to assist snob classmate Sarah. She refuses until she finds out that Sarah's mother (a State Supreme Court Judge) is a Georgia Tech engineering alumnae who may be able to pull strings to get her the scholarship she needs. She also almost immediately figures out that Sarah is pregnant and in the same situation she was in as a freshman. Sarah also has a very hunky brother, but he's a basketball teammate of Rhonda's impregnator, so she decides immediately that he has to be a horndog as well.
There were some good parts to the story such as Sarah agonizing over whether to get an abortion like Rhonda or not (she gets to the clinic in Atlanta and changes her mind). The eventual blow-up scene between Rhonda and her dad was good. He essentially accuses her of being a slut because she's now dating another basketball player. He refuses to believe nothing has happened between them because he knows she won't be able to keep her legs shut, so he tells she has to get on the pill. She goes into her room, brings the package back and throws it at him, and tells him he's so clueless that she's been on the pill for 3 years now and if she's such a slut why hasn't she had sex in all that time she's had protection? Touche!
However, the things that drove down my rating:
1) the lack of affection between any of the characters. Dad can't touch his daughter, but is constantly draped over his girlfriend, and always assumes the worst about Rhonda. She is equally strident when dealing with dad, hates the girlfriend, and is judgemental about David because he's also a basketball player. Sarah and her mother can only scream at each other. David has serious anger management and control issues. Gail is a megabitch who Rhonda questions why she's her best friend, etc etc etc.
2) the Judge as a puppetmaster was too much for me. First, there were
the coincidences that she'd also had an abortion at 14 and had gone onto engineering at Ga Tech (exactly mirroring Rhonda). It was her plan all along to get an engineering degree and then go to law school, which seems contrived to meet the needs of the plot. She's certainly not honorable in misusing her power to get what she wants. For example, she (illegally) gets a copy of Rhonda's school records so she can decide if she's an appropriate tutor for Sarah. She points out that she is a personal friend of the Ga Tech President and if Rhonda doesn't do what she wants then her scholarship hopes can go away with a phone call (don't know what Ga Tech folks would think about the implication that their President is that sleezy).
3) the abortion records incident was too ludicrous to be believeable. Somehow a Judge in South Carolina is able to work around HIPPA and clinics' zealous guarding of patient records to throw it in Rhonda's face that she knows she got an abortion in Atlanta, GEORGIA 3 years ago? That's when the story jumped the shark for me.
4) this may seem petty, but there was a total lack of local scenery descriptions and landmarks in the story. When you read Pat Conroy you actually feel like you're in Charleston. Even if the author is making up the town of East Podunk, Iowa they'll have some kind of descriptions (main steet, local diner, shops) to give you some perceptions of the setting. There was nothing in the story about Columbia, SC other than a couple of peripheral references to USC. It could have equally been set in Columbias in CA, MD, MO,NJ among others and you woundn't know the difference.