High school drama and the pressure of college admissions come to life through verse in 500 Words or Less, which details Nic Chen’s foray into academic cheating, cheating on her boyfriend, and coming into her own. The verse isn’t nearly as obvious as in books by Ellen Hopkins, which I love, but there are some really poignant sections of the book. I read it all in one go, so it’s a quick but compelling read. 500 Words or Less hits shelves September 25th and you can pre-order it now.
Nic Chen goes to school to find the word WHORE scrawled in lipstick across her locker, and while she’s furious, she also understands. The entire school lost faith in her when she cheated on her boyfriend, Ben, the nicest guy in school who later transferred and is now gone from their lives. At the same time, Nic is still reeling from the loss of her mother. She’s not dead, at least she doesn’t think so, but she just up and disappeared one day and Nic hasn’t talked to her since. Now her Dad is remarried and gives her all the freedom she could ask for, and some she couldn’t. Nic is fledgling, trying to find who she is again, when she’s approached by a classmate to write her college admissions essay so she can get into the school of her dreams. She agrees, for a fee. Then another student asks, and another, and another. Soon, she’s learning more and more about the students she’s writing for and about and even more about herself. But when tragedy strikes and her life becomes to tumble, Nic Chen must reckon with who she actually is as a writer and who she is off the page.
I love verse novels, but that’s pretty much because I’ve read everything by Ellen Hopkins. I love what a verse novel can do and how it can carry you through a story without getting you bogged down in prose and details and all that, and while I obviously enjoyed this book, I don’t think it “needed” to be written in verse or really went all in to the style. There were a lot of really long sentences not as eloquently folded into the verse and while I liked the inclusion of the essays she wrote for other people, including them in their entirety did take me out of the verse-ness of it all.
However, I really enjoyed the complexities of the characters, especially Nic and Jordan. We see Nic cheat on her boyfriend and write people’s college essays for them and we are still rooting for her, rooting for her to figure out what she really wants and rooting for her to get into Princeton. The character of Jordan is also more than meets the eye, but I won’t spoil that here. I wish we had a little bit more backstory with Nic’s mother but I appreciated the way it wrapped up. Again, no spoilers. Another side character I weirdly enjoyed was Nic’s step-mother. She clearly cared about Nic and was trying to make the best of the situation.
Overall, this book was really interesting. The characters are complex and you want to dive more and more into them. While it’s not the most clear-cut verse novel, it has some really beautiful moments and I loved seeing Nic discover more about her classmates and herself as the novel unfolded.