Most Likely by Sarah Watson
Overview: From the start, we know that one girl in the friend group will become president. We also know one will marry a Diffenderfer. Will it be CJ, Ava, Martha, or Jordan? While you're left to wonder throughout the book, I didn't find that to be the point. It's more about senior year and how messy and complicated and scary it can be. It's about realizing that dreams don't have to come true (and how that isn't always a bad thing), how relationships can be good even if they're messy, that parents are people too, and that staring adulthood in the face can be really, really scary. Overall: 5+
I've really struggled with writing this review because there's just so much in this book to discuss and it left my heart feeling so full and seen. I'm not sure how to say everything I want to without overwhelming everyone with a book's worth of thoughts. But I'm going to try.
This book hits every note in the chorus of my definition of perfect book. There are well explored family dynamics, a set of friendships that make their own family, discussion of mental health, learning to know when you're wrong and see outside of yourself, and one of the best handlings of the college admissions process I've seen. The book manages to pack a lot in. It's told in third person which is a bit out of the norm in YA and switches points of view between each of the four girls. It works here, though it can get confusing at times. While the plot starts out sort of awkward with a mission to save the park, the more chapters that you read, the more you just start living their lives. Here are some of my favorite aspects of the book, told in list form because that's the only way I can think of to lay it out.
- CJ and the SAT- This was one of the most immediately compelling storylines for me in the book. CJ is part of every high schooler in a way. She wants to change the world and do something special. A mix of society and brochures has convinced her that Stanford is a must have stepping stone on the way to that. The only problem? Stanford (like many schools) sees you first as one number- your SAT score- and then as a human. CJ knows this, and though she hopes that she can overcome her lackluster SAT score with a super compelling essay, she also works extremely hard to meet their standards. Like many high schoolers, she sells her soul, her life, her dreams to the college prep world in hopes of raising her score. She quits track, something she genuinely loves, to pour more hours into studying. She skips hanging out with her friends. The only thing still on the table is the volunteering she does enjoy doing. And, like a lot of kids, her score marginally goes up and then it goes down. She's a stand out student in the classroom, but the test is a hurdle she can't leap, and that completely obliterates her self esteem. CJ is far from the only high schooler who is dealing with this, and it's absurd that the path to higher education looks like that. We're becoming less "well rounded" and paying money a lot of us don't have just for the shot of someone giving us two seconds to hear out our dreams. CJ lost a lot to a promise that never delivered, and I think we all have been or know a CJ. What did we lose for something we never gained? It's something that's chronicled very similarly in another favorite book of mine, You Asked For Perfect.
- Jordan Just Wants to be Taken Seriously- Jordan is going to take the journalism world by storm one day. For now, she's the editor of her high school newspaper. She falls down a sort of dangerous rabbit hole while pursuing a story about the park getting demolished. When the councilman blows her off for being a "kid", she crafts a new identity as a 20 something "real" journalist ready to get the inside scoop to obliterate his career. She didn't expect to get so close to her source, one of the young staffers for the councilman. Under the impression that Jordan is an adult, his messages get flirtier and flirtier, and even though Jordan knows she should hit the breaks, it feels good to be taken seriously- for someone to see her as just a person instead of a kid. This plot line was handled super well when it could've easily gone off the rails, and it's clear (both to the readers and to her friends) that she's making bad choices, but you can also see why she does it. Nothing is allowed to get to far, and Watson does a great job of intensely examining it. Teens aren't taken seriously or acknowledged for their potential far too often, and while Jordan doesn't handle it in the best way, you understand why she gets sucked into pretending to live in the adult world.
- Ava Wants to Know Who She Is- One of Ava's major struggles in the book is identity. She deals with depression, and while medication and therapy has helped, it's still a daily struggle. It's seemed taboo and isolating through her whole experience with it, so she doesn't know how much of it to accept as a part of her. While she comes into her own with her mental health story, she also wonders about the woman who gave her her DNA. The more she clashes and feels misunderstood by her mom, the more she wonders about her birth mom. The arch of deciding to find her birth mom is really beautifully done and ends up easing the questions that have pressed on. It also gives the chance to heal some wounds with her mom. There's a really touching scene between Ava and her mom at the end where her mom admits that she's only done the best she could as a parent, and sometimes she didn't get the answers right. I think it was a really great example of how your relationships with your parents shift as you get older and there's more room for understanding.
- Martha Struggles Between Practicality and Dreaming- Unlike CJ, Martha has the numbers to get into a top tier school. What she doesn't have is the funding. Martha spends a lot of time feeling like an outsider in her friend group because her family's money situation is different than the other girls. They don't intentionally make her feel bad, but her life and options are very different. Martha is the only one with a job of the girls, and she's unsure how she'll pay for college when financial aid might not be an option. It adds an extra layer of complication to her college search process and illustrates another very real hurdle for that idea of a "dream school". Martha's forced to be more mature and pragmatic than her friends because of her father's situation after being laid off from the plant, and she embodies a different experience than the other girls in a very eye opening way.
- Sometimes Words Sting For a While- Each of the girls has a different experience with their classmate, Logan Diffenderfer, as he seems to show up everywhere in the book. Ava's, though, was one of the most compelling. When she overheard Logan calling her dumb, among other things, freshman year when her mom fought to keep her in honors classes, Ava's self esteem was wrecked. She vowed to never forgive Logan for saying those things. He never knew that she heard what he said. Four years later, when they get to the point where they can finally have a conversation with one another, there's an amazing scene that really shows how one tiny comments can send somebody's life in a completely different direction even if the other person never meant to hurt them. It's a good reminder.
- We Say a Lot of the Wrong Things- When CJ's not being absorbed by the SAT, she's volunteering at an after-school sports program for children in wheelchairs. She quickly realizes that despite being incredibly empathetic, there's a lot she doesn't know about what it's like to have a disability, and it leads to fears and questions that she doesn't know how to reconcile in herself. It gets more complicated when she starts to fall for her fellow councilor, Wyatt. They have a genuine connection and really great relationship, but CJ also says and does a lot of the wrong things because she doesn't understand. Wyatt both gets that and helps her learn and also totally embraces his right to be irritated at her ignorant moments. He gets that she's never coming from a bad place, but it's also not on him to educate her or provide her some "experience". I thought that push and pull and their relationship as a whole was a serious high point of the book and approached in a way I hadn't seen before.
- Dreams Can Change- Ava always had her heart set on RISD, or, at least, art school. Her teacher has helped her gather a portfolio, her paintings have been shown in big time galleries, and art is what she loves more than anything. Her mom wants her to go to Stanford. While she initially resists, after touring the campus, her perception starts to shift. Given the choice, she confronts the confusing reality that you don't have to continue wanting the same thing for your whole life. You can change your mind. In a world that really expects you to know exactly who you are from the moment you set foot in high school, I found this to be a very empowering moment where she was really allowed to stop and reevaluate.
- Your Parents Don't Have to Get It To Love You- Martha is pretty positive that she likes girls. She doesn't want to fully commit to a label until she's had more life lived and experiences, but she feels confident in at least one part of it. While she was hesitant to tell her conservative, old school father, he's actually quite accepting. I really liked the glimpses of their relationship because they're super close despite having almost nothing in common. They're bonded by their mutual love for each other, and it was cool to see another kind of parent-child relationship shown in the book. There's really a variety of different parental relationships explored through the book. Her co-worker, Victoria, also has divorced parents and has a similar experience but with her mom instead of her dad.
- Spoilers Ahead (I will talk about their college results and decisions in
- You Don't Have to Live Other People's Dreams- One of the most surprisingly impactful moments in the book was actually due to a small plot point with Logan. Through the entire book, he's lamented being forced to go to Stanford to become a lawyer and join the family firm. He wants to work in film, but his parents think that's a stupid idea. He actually manages to get himself into Stanford, but in a surprising turn of events, he lets it go to spend a year working Martha's job at the movie theater. He's decided to forge is own path and apply to film schools in the next cycle to see if he can make his dreams come true. There are a lot of kids who deal with pressure from their parents on what school to attend to varying degrees. Many aren't as lucky as Ava was on getting their parents to come around. I really liked Logan's last minute change of heart. It's never too late to move towards your dreams.
- Sometimes, Things Don't Go The Way They're Supposed To; Maybe that's Okay- This is where I talk about what happened to each of the girls with their college decisions because I really loved how Watson did it. Most YA books that have an arch of getting into college let the characters succeed. Honestly, it's one of my biggest pet peeves with books that it seems to always magically work out of the main character. When I was going through the admissions process last year, I think I'd internalized that arch to the point where if I hoped and worked hard enough, my dream would have to come true. That's how it works, right? Not really, and sometimes that's honestly for the best. This book already has that side of it baked in which made me super happy because I think there needs to be more of that reality in YA.
- CJ does not get into Stanford. She also only gets into her one safety school. She applied to mostly prestigious, reach schools on the misinformed notion that her essay could make up for her SAT score in these places. That's just not a reality most elite schools now. While it's a disappointment (and kind of a shock), she embraces it quickly. It's nice to see how fast she works to make the best of a situation. It also helps that it's also where Wyatt is going back to school. While she didn't get the future she envisioned, the epilogue confirmed that it set her down a path that lead her to the future she both wanted and deserved. I think that's a great thing to show teens because college decisions really do feel like a make or break your world situation.
- Jordan gets waitlisted for Northwestern, but she does get into George Washington. While she originally thought she'd never want to move to DC, by the end of the book, she realizes that it's more in line with where her interests have shifted. She chooses to not wait and see about the waitlist. I loved that this experience was shown too, because you are allowed to change your mind on your dream school, and you're allowed to be happy that you get to pick a new path.
- Ava gets into both Stanford and RISD. In the end, she decides that Stanford is the better fit for what she wants to do (and a chance to get closer with Isabel). She has choices between two amazing schools and decides to pick a different lane than the one she thought she wanted.
- And Martha ends up in a tricky situation and one a lot of kids face. She got into MIT with no scholarship or a local college with a full scholarship. While the practical side of her feels like she should stay put, live at home, and keep her job, she knows that she really needs a change. Instead of giving up on her dreams, she starts looking for alternative ways to finance her dreams. Interestingly, there's a storyline about army recruitment to cover MIT costs, that I didn't have time to get to, that ends up working out for Martha in the end.
They all end up on very different paths than they started, informed by their senior year experiences, but they all are genuinely happy in the end. We spend so much time perfectly picturing our futures, but that doesn't mean that they're set in stone. All of these girls took charge of their paths in a really amazing, affirming way. I'd give this book to any student approaching application season or parent with a kid facing it. I also wish that colleges put more consideration into what their processes and standards really do to student's lives and mental health.
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