Slingshot by Mercedes Helnwein

I found this book shockingly, uncomfortably relatable, and would fight anyone to defend its heroine, the precocious 15 year-old Gracie Welles. I, too, was sent to a “prestigious” boarding school at that age by a well-meaning dad who didn’t really understand the realities of what I needed to survive it, and I too spent countless hours while there listening to the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, which is an album that I can say with the utmost sincerity saved my life (along with Soundgarden’s Superunknown.) Luckily for me, I was even then possessed of the social graces that make it easy for me to make friends and get along, unlike sophomore Gracie whose main connections to the social life at her Florida boarding school are her rich jock roommate Georgie and her biology teacher Mr Sorrentino, on whom she has a completely inappropriate crush. When she discovers that her “soulmate” is engaged, she freaks out and starts skipping out on his classes.

Playing hooky one day finds her saving new kid Wade Scholfield from the violent attentions of popular senior Derek McCormick and two of his goon friends, using the titular weapon. When she and Wade are busted immediately after for not being in class and for being in possession of a weapon, they’re put on dining room clean-up duty together. Gracie doesn’t want to make friends despite Wade’s overtures, but the more time they spend together, the more she thaws. And soon their friendship is getting complicated, even before Gracie decides to take the terrible advice of ultimate Cool Girl, senior Beth Whelan. When Gracie almost inevitably loses Wade, how far will she be willing to go to get him back?

Other reviewers have called this book a cross between John Greene and Sally Rooney, and that’s a really good description. Slingshot unpacks the innermost thoughts of a complicated and vital fifteen year-old as she navigates her first real love and its realistic push pull. I can see why it’s being marketed as Young Adult — tho shudder to think that in the current marketing climate, classics like Bonjour Tristesse, The Lover and Rainey Royale would be labeled the same* — but it’s shorn of so many of the easy wins and comfortable tropes of the genre that it really feels deeper and harder, more Normal People than Paper Towns, and frankly better than both in my opinion. It’s honest about sex and love and the perils of coming of age for sensitive kids with fucked up parents and excellent taste in music. Had I been in a 21st-century American boarding school instead of the 1990s religious hellhole I went to, this could very well have been my story.

The only thing I didn’t find 100% plausible was the outburst Anju had at the end. A large part of me hopes that young women decades after my own adolescence are much more cognizant of their own social roles and might actually talk the way she did, tho I did appreciate Mercedes Helnwein’s wry observation that the speech does seem too good to be true. I also appreciated the inclusion of this playlist, not something I ordinarily care about in books, as well as the in-text recommendation of The Wipers, whose Up Front is one of my current favorite songs.

Even if Ms Helnwein didn’t rummage around in your personal history to craft this book as she did with mine, discerning readers will find a lot to like in this fierce and messy tale of growing up and finding your first love. The craft shown is impressive: the story folds back in on itself with parallels that feel more artful for feeling entirely natural. Slingshot is not a book for romantics — Gracie was much more forgiving of Wade’s letter than I was, but I hold grudges — but it’s by far one of the most realistic depictions of being a weird and lonely teenager I’ve ever read.

*and it’s not that I don’t think YA isn’t a worthy genre, it’s just that some of its superfans are nucking futs! I’ve read reviews dinging this book for lacking reality because the fifteen year-old heroine smokes cigarettes and curses out teachers without getting into too much trouble, like how petit bourgeoisie do you have to be to not know the kind of very rich or very poor kids who do all that as a matter of course?! And then the pearl clutching over the very normal plot thread of a teenager having a crush on a teacher! It’s only problematic if the teacher reciprocates! V sorry to break my rule on not commenting on other people’s reviews in my own but witaf: go meet some people outside your smug middle-class bubble!

Slingshot by Mercedes Helnwein was published today April 27 2021 by Wednesday Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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