Beware of Spoilers!
Do you ever finish a book and think that it has possibly garnered five stars, but the more you think about it, the more it shows its true, albeit still very interesting, colors? For me, that was Four-Letter Word by Christa Desir.
Four-Letter Word honestly had one of my favorite expositions of the books I've read so far this year. As a recent high school graduate, I thought that the way Desir wove in the different conflicts and characters in Chloe Sanders' life was pretty seamless -- nobody was dropped in without explanation, and nearly everyone proved important to the story in some way or another. With the exception, of course, of antagonist Chloe Donnelly. I'm sure nearly every high schooler has run into Chloe Donnelly's particular brand of bully: they put on a front like they're much cooler and more mature than everyone else, while simultaneously encouraging everyone to put logic and rational thought aside and join them in some harebrained scheme or another, that is going to end up getting everyone in trouble but the bully herself. In Four-Letter Word's case, this scheme is called Gestapo. Yeah, you read that right, like the Nazi secret police. That word definitely came out of nowhere as I was first reading it, and I think Desir pretty effectively achieved her goal of making the reader as deeply uncomfortable with the game as Chloe Sanders is. There's basically no bigger red flag than someone calling a "game" after the Gestapo, even if it is, as Chloe S. kept trying to remind herself, just a word game.
But because this is high school, and because Chloe Donnelly has the magnetism that all high school mean girls seem to have, Chloe Sanders and her friends get wrapped up in the game before they know what's happening. And up to this point, I think I was totally on board, plotwise. I hated Chloe Donnelly, and I think that for the majority of the book, Desir wrote her soooo realistically. She was so easy to dislike. But then, as the game progressed, and it became clear that the way to win was to trade secrets (and sexual favors, which I'll get to in a minute). This is where, to me, the plot started to go kind of haywire. Chloe Donnelly knew things about the other players that nobody else did, even though the group of seven native Grinnell students had known each other longer than this newcomer. Some of the things she could have Googled (Holly's dad was in jail for possession of narcotics, for example), and some of the things she could have just stumbled upon (Josh and Aiden's relationship, much like Chloe Sanders accidentally saw them making out outside of the locker room, and even though Holly makes fun of Chloe for being a stalker, the girl is really not all that observant, so...Chloe Donnelly is no Sherlock Holmes, is what I'm trying to say). The part that didn't make sense to me is how Chloe Donnelly could have known that Mateo and his family were undocumented. That seems beyond a smart 19-year-old catfisher's ability, which, in my opinion, is what totally dropped this from a five-star read to a three on my Goodreads. There were definitely some parts of Four-Letter Word that had my heart racing, turning the pages like crazy to find out the next twist, but the ending just wasn't one of them. Coupled with the total lack of resolution for all the characters I was rooting for, it made the book -- which was definitely on the long side for the story Desir was trying to tell -- seem unfinished.
Finally, my last issue with Four-Letter Word isn't an issue with a writing so much as it is in putting it into the Young Adult category. I think Desir really captured the strangeness and newness of being, well, a young adult, but her references to sex edged on gratuitous and were definitely graphic. With the proper warning, I think this book could be great for mature young adults, but it's definitely not something you'd find in a school library. In my opinion, putting this into the "new adult" category better represents the story and its author.
Four-Letter Word comes out May 15, 2018 from Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster) in the US.
Disclaimer: I received an advanced readers' copy of Four-Letter Word at the Texas Library Association Conference 2018. This has in no way affected my rating, review, or opinion of this book. Some of the links in this review are affiliate links.