I’ve made it no secret that I’m a huge fan of Brigid Kemmerer’s work. While I definitely loved A Curse So Dark and Lonely, her retelling of Beauty and the Beast, I was first introduced to her writing through her young-adult contemporary novels. Character driven and bittersweet, these books never shy away from heavier topics for its teenage protagonists and still manage to work in fluffier, intimate moments between them. Given that I’m a hopeless romantic and I can never resist characters getting put through the emotional wringer, I knew I had to check out Kemmerer’s latest novel, Call It What You Want, branded as a modern retelling of Robin Hood.
Rob Lachlan and Maegan Day are both repairing their broken reputations from the previous spring. Rob’s father was outed for embezzling money from his clients; after he attempts suicide, Rob and his mother are charged with his care, as well as the mounting lawsuits from everyone in town who lost money. Maegan was caught cheating on the SATs when the pressure got to be too much; with her older sister now home from college and pregnant, she’s finding it hard to keep her cool. Paired together for a calculus project, Rob and Maegan start to open up about their struggles and discover that right and wrong are not as clear-cut as they thought they were.
Maegan was the character I immediately identified with while reading. Aside from looking very similar to how she’s described, I related to her struggle to do her best in school and her feelings of being pressured by her parents, specifically her father. Maegan is a people pleaser, so her newfound job of damage control at home puts even more pressure on her to keep things from falling apart. She feels a certain loyalty to her sister, Samantha, to keep the identity of her baby’s father a secret from their parents; at the same time, Maegan compares herself unfavorably to Samantha, wishing she could be more talented and confident and less afraid of what other people think. Everything about Maegan’s character resonated strongly with me, and her fears of judgment were ones I had in high school and still have now as an adult. Seeing her grow closer to both Rob and Samantha and watching those relationships bring out her inner strength was really satisfying to read, and I definitely teared up a couple of times.
Rob’s journey was one I was much more invested in than I had previously thought. Given that he was interning for his father’s company, many people assume he knew about the embezzlement, which Rob early on says is not true. Everyone brands him a thief, and while he acts distant and abrasive, it’s very clear that he’s still hurting from his father’s mistakes. He begins to subtly steal from his rich former friends, making sure that the money goes to students who are struggling financially after losing their funds to his father. When Rob does show emotion, it’s visceral and heartbreaking, reminding the reader that this is a young man who really has lost everything: his father, his friends, and his future.
Aside from compelling leads, another hallmark of Kemmerer’s writing is intriguing side characters. Owen Goettler, Rob’s new friend and partner in crime, is the first one Rob gives stolen money to. While they initially don’t seem to have much in common, they’re able to discuss some of the messier parts of their lives and give each other support. Samantha, Maegan’s sister, is a firecracker with her sarcasm and lacrosse moves, but shows a more vulnerable side when talking about her pregnancy and helping Maegan become more confident in herself. Mr. London, the school librarian, goes from suspicious victim of Rob’s father to an unlikely confidant, giving Rob book recommendations and a safe place to talk if he needs it. Even Connor Tunstall, Rob’s former best friend, has more to him than he lets on. Initially coming off as an entitled rich boy and lording Rob’s misfortunes over him, Connor has secrets of his own that he’s not willing to share at first, and while that certainly doesn’t make up for the hurt he causes Rob, it gave me pause to consider if he truly was a bad person.
And really, that’s what this book is all about. I’ve learned that black-and-white thinking can be more harmful than helpful, and that logic certainly applies to Call It What You Want. Bad people can still do good things and vice versa, and one mistake doesn’t have to define who you are. While the romantic parts of this book were definitely swoon worthy, I have to say that I loved the individual journeys of Rob and Maegan even more. It’s not always easy to navigate through the gray areas of life, but with Rob and Maegan, Kemmerer has left me hopeful that it’s possible—and well worth it.
Call It What You Want is out on June 25, 2019. It’s one you’ll definitely want to pick up this summer.