Cinderella in Reverse

 

Days away from inheriting her $25 million trust fund, privileged heiress Lexington Larrabee’s life cannot get any better. She has everything every 17-year-old girl dreams of. That is until she drunkenly crashes her $500,000 Mercedes Benz into a convenience store and her father sentences her to what she can only describe as capital punishment. Her rapidly approaching 18th birthday will not bring her the fortune and freedom for which she has been anxiously awaiting since she can remember. She must work a new job each week for an entire year to be eligible to receive her money on her 19th birthday.

In 52 Reasons to Hate my Father, author Jessica Brody expertly provides a window into the life of the privileged, giving depth to a stereotypically shallow genre of young adult fiction through her uniquely humanizing characterization of a spoiled heiress and the supporting cast of her life. As she reports for what she has deemed the “Richard Larrabee Boot Camp for Ungrateful, Spoiled Daughters,” or more affectionately, “Operation Let’s Make Lexi’s Life Miserable,” her character is the embodiment of the inconsiderate, material girl. Though her voice is smart and at times witty, she begins the novel neither likeable nor relatable as a protagonist. Obstinate and stubborn (“My father might be able to force me to do manual labor. But he definitely can’t force me to care.”), Brody has taken on the monumental task of teaching her something valuable and making it believable. How can you make an entitled socialite – spoiled seemingly to the point of no return – give up her silver spoon in order to see that there is more to life than money, fame and parties? Make her clean a toilet apparently. Oh and obviously enlist the help of a sneakily attractive intern “babysitter” to ensure she actually cleans said toilet – nothing inspires life changes in a teenage girl like the presence of a cute college guy.

Luke, an annoyingly by-the-book 20-year-old USC student hired by Lexi’s father to supervise her progress for the year, provides a much-needed dose of reality upon his entrance. College choice aside, he is the prototype of the “good” guy that brings out the best in the teenage protagonist, yet goes unnoticed due to the presence of an arrogantly attractive “bad” guy. In typical YA fashion, Lexi resists Luke with every fiber in her being because unlike everyone else in her life, he is not submissive to her every need – he actually challenges her. Because he is outside of her world, he is able to give her perspective on her life, whether she chooses to internalize it or not, telling her, “‘You’re all about external motivators. Needing something on the outside to make you feel good on the inside.” While she rejects this at first, Luke comes to represent a large part of her transformation throughout the novel.

The world Brody creates is believable in its extravagant unbelievability. Reading about the Larrabee estates (yes, estates plural) with their Alice in Wonderland gardens and multitude of butlers, maids and other “help,” is for the modern teen reader like watching an episode of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” – or another reality show about an extremely wealthy family – on TV. One is able to visualize her world with the same far-off admiration and slight irritation reserved for the people who seem to have everything yet somehow find things to complain about. But this elaborately constructed world, like the world of the Kardashians, is just that – a façade. A 20-foot iron fence guarded by German Shepherds containing any “real” problems from the drama-hungry paparazzi. As Lexi describes it, “The world I inhabit is full of cover-ups… Elaborate lies that shroud the ugly truth in fabricated beauty.”

Her party-girl selfish attitude is her own personal iron fence, blocking out her “ugly truth,” which she hints at in a touching moment of vulnerability when she reveals, “In my seventeen years of life I can remember four times that my father has said he loved me … and every single one of them occurred on national television.” This saddening revelation marks the turning point at which the reader is able to see past the superficial perfection of her world and into its emptiness. Her relationship (or lack thereof) with her father provides what could have been a shallow “Hollywood socialite” narrative with a distinct profundity. Though she takes for granted the material things that most people would kill to have, she lacks the vital thing many teen readers take for granted – a loving parent.

As Lexi slowly turns an introspective eye on her world, the story truly becomes, as she sarcastically coined it in the beginning of the novel, “Cinderella in reverse.” The novel itself in some ways is its own Cinderella story. Though it begins as unpromisingly shallow, brilliant and unique characterization along with relationships that feel real turn a pumpkin into a horse drawn carriage speeding through the surprisingly exciting plot twists. Brody aptly uses the power she has solidified through our investment in her characters to combat the prominent issue of consumerism in modern teenagers. In a popular culture obsessed with money and material possessions, we learn along with Lexi that having “stuff” does not directly translate to a fulfilled life.

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