Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review: Ambitious by Monica MacKayhan

by Monica MacKayhan
September 1, 2011 
Received ARC from NetGalley
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page
Grade: D

Synopsis (from Publisher): There's only one thing tougher than getting in to Premiere High: Staying in…

At Premiere School of the Performing Arts, nicknamed Premiere High, talent is a must and competition is fierce. But the payoff is worth it. Some of the biggest stars in music, movies and dance are on the alumni list. New student Marisol Garcia dreams of taking her place among them one day. And being chosen to take part in a local dance contest where a film role is the prize could possibly be her first step into the spotlight.

Almost as big a challenge: getting Drew Bishop to see her as more than a friend. But Drew is preoccupied with his own dilemma of either playing basketball, which could be a free ticket to college, or pursuing the stage where he really comes alive. But every dream comes with a price. And as Marisol becomes consumed with winning, the once straight–A student risks losing everything. Starting with her parents' approval, her friends and her place at Premiere High…

Girl gets accepted to a massively competitive performing arts high school and soon proves herself one of the best dancers in the school...and gets the hottest and most talented guy in her class.

Wait...that's not how it works, is it?

In Ambitious, it definitely works that way. Marisol is accepted both to Premiere High School of Performing Arts AND the top dance class in the school despite any formal dance training. A free class the previous summer seems to be Marisol's only actual dance instruction. People can be naturally talented, but from the first page, Ambitious flirts with snapping my suspension of disbelief.

Her love interest, Drew, also is far better than seems reasonable. With echoes of High School Musical dancing and singing through the head, Drew's not only a standout basketball star who's approached by a Georgetown scout in his sophomore year (after he's stopped playing ball in order to attend Premiere), but he's also apparently an amazingly talented actor who lands the starring role of Walter Lee Younger in the school production of A Raisin in the Sun. This is despite any acting experience beyond a Christmas pageant in sixth grade and an Easter play at his grandmother's church.

Marisol and Drew alternate point-of-view chapters as they experience the first months of attending Premiere High. They both have to handle family issues – Marisol's little brother is being pressured to join a gang and Drew's dad doesn't like his son giving up basketball. Marisol also has difficulties combining her neighbourhood friends with the girls and guys she meets at school in Manhattan.

Marisol is a likeable enough character as she deals with leaving her close-knit Brooklyn neighbourhood and expanding her horizons into Manhattan – and hopefully future stardom. But while the character is sweet, she never seems to have to actually struggle to achieve anything. She competes in a Dance America! Contest – referred in the book as the most competitive dance competition in the country, but Marisol breezes through to the finals in California while seeming to only train for the competition at lunch. Her old best friend is jealous over Mari's new school friends, but the issue is smoothed over when said old friend gets sick of the girl she befriended to replace Marisol and tries to make amends. She worries about boys, but they compete with each other to ask her to the formal dance. Without much adversity to define her character, the likable qualities seem mostly one-note and the character lacks needed complexity.

I wasn't nearly as fond of Drew even on a superficial level. His chapters failed to provide a level of character development expected from a main character, and they mostly detail his name brand possessions and trips to see Knicks' games or golf outings. I kept expecting some quality of self-reflection from him, especially given his interest in acting, but I was disappointed. The only scene where his character seemed like a human and a teenage boy instead of the author's conception of the ideal teenage boy was when his grandmother visited and talked with him about acting and girls. But even then, I was glaring at the page, annoyed that his grandmother is portrayed almost as maid – she comes by every week or so to clean Drew and his father's apartment, do their laundry, and cook for them. I wanted to shake the boy and ask if he really was sitting there letting his elderly grandma scrub his toilet.

I had high hopes for Ambitious. I've such a soft spot for stories a) about boarding schools/exclusive schools and b) about theatre or dance, and this one seemed to hit all those points. The synopsis and promise of a future series set at a Manhattan performing arts high school sounded like it could be really interesting and full of the backstabbing drama that only really shows up in the arts. Also YA lit can be so saturated with solely white heroes and heroines, and a series that was explicitly multicultural was really appealing too me. But until the characters actually have to work to succeed in such a high pressure environment, I'll be passing on any future Premiere books.

Many thank yous to Netgalley and KimaniTRU for the ecopy of this book for review

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