A girl's face in the side mirror of her car, backed by an open field and blue sky

About the Book

Title: The Princesses of Iowa
Published: 2012
Swoonworthy Scale: 1

Cover Story: No Shame
BFF Charm: Yay!
Talky Talk: 2 Legit 2 Quit
Bonus Factors: Diversity, Iowa, Creative Writing Class
Anti-Bonus Factor: Dan Scott Award for Awful Parenting
Relationship Status: College Roommate

Cover Story: No Shame

Is this my favorite cover? No. But it could be so much worse, y’all! This book is a prime candidate for slapping a headless body in a fancy dress on the cover, with a glittery scepter and a sash that says “Princesses of Iowa,” and like, one foot in a fancy heel and another in some Converse. And this book deserves so much better than that. So thanks to the publisher for this. It at least relates to the story and looks fairly adult, as these things go.

The Deal:

Paige Sheridan and her two best friends, Lacey and Nikki, are the envy of every other girl at their small-town Iowa high school. That is, they were, until that drunk driving accident at the end of Junior year.

Now Paige is headed into her senior year after a summer away from home, and she just wants things to get back to normal–sitting on a float in the homecoming parade, with a tiara and her two best friends by her side, just like they’d always planned. But the accident changed something between Paige and her friends, and her boyfriend Jake seems more interested in helping Lacey with her rehabilitation than spending time with his actual girlfriend. On top of everything, Paige’s mom is obsessed with living vicariously through her daughters, constantly telling her what to wear, how to act, and who to be friends with. Can Paige reconcile who she once was, who everyone else thinks she is, and who she wants to be herself?

BFF Charm: Yay!

Yay BFF Charm

So, Sarah likes to play this game called “would we have been friends in high school?” It’s really simple: you each say what you were like in high school, and then decide if you would have been friends. And Paige and me? We would not have been friends.

However, beneath all her Mean Girling, Paige is a really introspective, considerate kid who desperately needs a decent BFF, one who is different enough from her to offer a reality check. Sometimes I wanted to go all Mr. Knightley on her and say, in my most disapproving tone, “Badly done, Paige, badly done!” But even when she is at her most horrible, I know that she is good at heart, that she feels remorse, and that she is still grappling with who she is. So yeah, I’m going to stand by her.

Swoonworthy Scale: -5 and also 6, so net 1

So it’s pretty clear from the get-go that Jake and Paige’s relationship has reached its expiration date, but without spoiling anything, Jake is a crappy boyfriend in a horribly unsexy, negative swoon scale way.

Luckily, there’s Ethan, the new kid in Paige’s creative writing class. We don’t get to learn too much about Ethan because this isn’t really a kissing book, but I kind of think that secretly, Ethan is Cameron Quick levels of hot. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Talky Talk: 2 Legit To Quit

I can’t believe this is Backes’ first novel, because it is painfully and poetically accurate. She had me sold from the prologue. Backes perfectly captures the fine line between Paige’s horrible, selfish, Mean Girl and her inner outcast in a way that was both compelling and believable. I wasn’t anything like Paige in high school, but despite her popularity, her voice comes from a universal place of vulnerable loneliness that anyone who is or has ever been a teenager can relate to.

It was the first time I’d hung out with Miranda, outside of obligatory family functions, and I was surprised by how well she got long with everyone. For once in our lives, she seemed perfectly comfortable, while I felt like a total outsider. Everyone else was so aggressively individual. I felt like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club–no matter what happened tonight, on Monday I would go back to being the pretty girl and once again have nothing in common with any of these people.

Bonus Factor: Diversity

Faces of all different races, ethnicities and genders.

Without giving too much of the plot away, diversity plays an important role in this book. And not in a checkbox “yay diverse characters!” way, but in a tangible, realistic, I’m-scared-but-also-hopeful-for-society kind of way.

Bonus Factor: Iowa

State sign in a field, welcoming you to Iowa

I am not from Iowa, and I haven’t been there since I was ten. But one of my best friends from college grew up there, and two of my housemates went to Grinnell, so I am very pro-Iowa. Plus, this book gave me an excuse to wear my Iowa t-shirt and listen to that Dar Williams song on repeat while writing this review.

Bonus Factor: Creative Writing Class

Close up of a person's hands while writing a letter

Paige takes a creative writing class as a an easy A and ends up loving it. And I am extremely jealous because I never took creative writing AND her teacher is kind of the best ever. Also, some of my favorite parts of the book were Paige’s freewriting sessions from class, which were a pretty cool narrative device for giving background without dragging down the forward momentum of the plot.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Dan Scott Award for Awful Parenting

Evil Dan Scott from One Tree Hill

We should totally rename this award the “Jacque Sheridan Awful Mother Award” because Paige’s mom is THE VERY WORST. She’s manipulative and crazy and is reliving her teenage years through Paige because those are the best years of your life. She also says shit like this, to her impressionable teenage daughters:

“Infidelity is only a symptom of a bigger problem, Paige. And maybe it’s not fair, but when there’s a problem, it always falls on the women to fix it.” She shrugged. “We come by it naturally. We’re nurturers; we nurture. I don’t know the exact details of Delia and Charlie’s marriage, but I do know this: he’s not going to come home if there’s nothing to come home to.” She lowered the rearview mirror to check her eye makeup and wiped away a tiny smudge under her lower lashes. “I’m not going to pretend it’s easy, honey, because it’s not.”

WTF?! THAT IS SO MESSED UP. She does her best parenting when she’s depressed and has locked herself alone in her room. Paige’s dad is a million times better at being a parent, and that’s really saying something since he is only in approximately one scene in the entire book. The worst part about Jacque Sheridan is that I know real life mothers just like her.

Relationship Status: College Roommate

This book and I are pretty different, and I probably wouldn’t have sought out its friendship if we hadn’t been randomly assigned as roommates. If we’d met when I was younger, I don’t know that we would have been friends like we are now. But now that I’ve grown out of my judgey teenage years, I can really appreciate this book for who it is and love it for our differences, rather than in spite of them. We just met, but this book is already like family to me, and I can tell it will always have a place in my life.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Candlewick Press. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). The Princesses of Iowa is available now.

Alix is a writer and illustrator who spends way too much time reading Jane Austen retellings of varying quality.