High school is where memories are made, be they good or bad. Whether you're popular or an outcast, you remember that time of your life. Sara Bennett Wealer's debut novel, Rival, recaptures high school through the eyes of two girls who couldn't be more different...or more alike. Kathryn and Brooke are two seniors competing for the same prestigious music scholarship. Kathryn is a soprano with a light, airy voice, while Brooke is an alto, her sound rich and deep. Brooke is rich and one of the most popular girls at school while Kathryn is poor and a social outcast. Their love of music should bring these two girls together in the ultimate friendship, but instead, they're bitter rivals.
The novel flips between "current day" (senior year) and flashbacks of junior year when everything went wrong. This isn't done in an annoying way, however. Each year is focused on from both points of view for quite a few chapters before flipping back again. Rival is so tightly written that readers want to know what happened junior year to make Kathryn and Brooke such bitter rivals. They keep alluding to something, so by the time you find out, you're just dying to know. Wealer did a spectacular job building suspense and keeping the story feeling natural.
Rivals focuses on relationships, but not the romantic kind. While there's a brush of romance thrown in, it's very blink-and-you-miss-it. While boy drama is involved, the male species is not the focal point of this novel: The relationship between the two rivals is. It's refreshing to read a book with this type of outlook. There's so much more to life than boys, but you'd never know it perusing today's YA market. Friendship and rivalry is very much a part of our daily life, especially in high school. At one point, Kathryn and Brooke were on the point of being friends. If what went down junior year hadn't gotten in the way, they would have most likely been best friends. They're so obsessed with music and have so much in common, but it's all overlooked due to their intense dislike of one another.
The relationship between the girls is another place where Wealer got it right. Because she chose to write from the POV of both characters, readers get a multi-faceted look at them as human beings. If we had read the book from just one perspective, we'd be looking through the flawed eyes of that one character. The remaining girl would automatically be a villain. It's amazing to see the same situation through two pairs of eyes. For example, at one point, Kathryn gets complimented on her singing and smiles at one of her choir friends, but Brooke thinks she's being smug and going, "So there!" at her to rub it in. In another instance, Kathryn thinks Brooke's homecoming platform revolves around her and the fact that her family is poor, but Kathryn's circumstances never crossed Brooke's mind when putting everything together. It's just amazing to see the way both girls become flawed, individual characters, neither right nor wrong. There are times when I really detest Brooke's character, but others when Kathryn is out of line as well. Ultimately, I cared for them both and wanted to know how everything ultimately turns out for them.
Harper's art department also got it right: Rival's design will make all the other books on the shelf jealous. I love the bright, eye-catching red. That is one gorgeous flower. I also love the significance of the one petal pulled away from the rest, alluding to the fractured relationship between two girls. Even better, the piano on the cover hints at the fact that the novel revolves around the world of music. I also love the fonts used on both the cover and inside chapter headers. In addition, each chapter details what girl's POV we're reading, with a curl at the end that reminds me strongly of a music note. There's a beautiful curl at the bottom of each page where the number is as well.
The last thing I want to point out that I love about Rival is the fact that it's centered around the arts. With so many programs being cut these days, it's refreshing to see an author focus on such students. Not only that, the high school choir is really good and constantly in competitions. Singers are regularly nominated for prestigious prizes such as the prestigious Blackmore scholarship Kathryn and Brooke are competing for. In addition, they don't focus on modern-day pop hits the way the students in Glee do. Instead, they listen to musicals, study Stephen Sondheim, and sing hard opera songs. These are some truly talented students and, music lover that I am, I adore the way Wealer gave us a glimpse into the world of pre-professional singers.
I'm so happy with how much music is in the media right now. Love it or hate it, Glee is a phenomenon in and of itself that has paved the road for more music-centered TV shows. Rival will hopefully be popular with teens as well. Fellow 2011 debut author Jessica Martinez will release Virtuosity, focused on rivalry in the world of orchestra students, this time a boy and girl competing in the prestigious Guarneri competition. If you enjoyed Rival, I think you'll want to read this as well. I know I do! In fact, Martinez released cover art this week and it is hot, hot, HOT!