Today, I'm reviewing The Social Code by Sadie Hayes. I'll be honest - I actually rewrote my review several times, because I had difficulty capturing some of the book's most intriguing themes on class warfare.
(And I'll be honest - I still don't think I've fully done it justice!)
As usual, YA Contemporary Thursday is where we review the latest and greatest contemporary books!
Paperback, 320 pages
Expected publication: September 3rd 2013 by St. Martin's Griffin
This is a book which uses wealth and the tech sector to ask probing questions about class warfare, and will stay with readers long after they've closed the book.
Plot synopsis (via Goodreads)
Eighteen-year-old twins Adam and Amelia Dory learned the hard way to rely only on each other, growing up in a small town where they understood the meaning of coming from nothing. But everything changes when both are offered scholarships to Stanford University – and catapulted into the dazzling world of Silicon Valley, where anyone with a good enough idea can skyrocket to fame and fortune in the blink of an eye…
Amelia is almost as pretty as she is smart – almost. A shy girl and genius, she is happiest alone in the computer lab, but her brother has other plans for her talents: A new company that will be the next Silicon Valley hit, and will thrust Amelia into the spotlight whether she likes it or not. Where Amelia’s the brains, Adam’s the ambition – he sees the privileged lifestyle of the Silicon Valley kids and wants a piece of what they have. He especially wants a piece of Lisa Bristol, the stunning daughter of one of the Valley’s biggest tycoons.
As Adam and Amelia begin to hatch their new company, they find themselves going from nothing to the verge of everything seemingly overnight. But no amount of prestige can prepare them for the envy, backstabbing and cool calculation of their new powerful peers.
Welcome to Silicon Valley, where fortune, success – and betrayal – are only a breath away...
This isn't just a book about rich kids with complicated lives. This is also a book which initiates thought-provoking questions about wealth and social mobility, wrapped up intriguingly in a YA/NA package. Though the execution isn't always perfect - more on this later - I think that this is a book that definitely intrigue and provoke readers.
Now, with that being said...
Things that worked:
The book opens with a prologue that clearly spells out the fate of several of the main characters.
While I’m generally not a fan of retrospective storytelling, I think it absolutely works in this case. Not only does the structure take the pressure off of certain elements in the storyline, but it also emphasizes the idea that the book you're about to read is a place where anything is possible. Wealth is always always up for the grabs in Silicon Valley, as long as you have the ambition and the talent to take it.
There are two plotlines that run concurrently throughout the book.
For the A storyline, we have Amelia and Adam struggling to figure out their way at Stanford, while setting up their startup and trying to figure out who they are, what they’re destined to do, and what they want in life. Amelia wants to fit in; Adam wants to be more like the rich boys on campus. At the same time, they're also both running from their past.
For the B storyline, we have Patty – Amelia’s roommate, and society girl – struggling with her feelings for her future brother-in-law, and working to maintain her image as a party girl who's also taken seriously.
Though I didn’t necessarily agree with some of the characterizations and the number of POVs used throughout the course of the book, I thought that Hayes did a good job of intermixing these two storylines, and using individuals from either storyline to further the respective plot.
I also thought that by establishing these two storylines, Hayes did an excellent job of emphasizing the underlying theme that Silicon Valley is a place where your background doesn't necessarily immediately determine your position in life. There is room for social mobility, which is explored in far more depth as the book progresses.
* The setting
The Stanford campus is omnipresent throughout the book, which I thought was a smart world-building choice.
Though we don’t actually spent a lot of time getting to know the campus very well – Amelia and Adam are frequently away at their startup; T.J., Patty, etc. are always hanging out at home - what we do see continues to emphasis Hayes’s overarching point that there are certain places in the world where the rich will meet the regular, and it’s possible to take advantage of these opportunities.
I think if any educators or parents were looking to get this book for their teens, I would actually use the setting as one of the main selling points. The idea that Stanford presents all of these opportunities opens up an array of questions:
E.g. How would someone take advantage of these opportunities if they were in the same position? And more importantly, is it fair that these opportunities are only open to people who are able to get to these campuses?
* The themes
Without giving any spoilers away, Hayes incorporates a number of wealth-related themes throughout the book that are genuinely thought provoking.
Hayes uses these themes to set up conflict - e.g. whether wealth is worth more than family; wealth as a motivator; class warfare/social mobility used as manipulation; losing scruples in the pursuit of wealth; and she does an excellent job of using these themes to propel the story forward.
Similar to the setting, I think parents and educators can use these themes to discuss a wide range of issues with their teens.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
Hayes attempts to set up Amelia as a technological wunderkid in the book. However, despite her years of experience of working in Silicon Valley, Hayes isn't always accurate when it comes to describing Amelia's background.
From the early days of her coding history, Amelia displays an array of abilities which would flummox even the most advanced computer engineers at NASA. One day, she's hacking into the ETS system to change someone's SAT scores. The next day, she's embezzling money from the state government without getting caught.
While Hayes attempts to justify these skills by explaining that Amelia can see patterns differently, I think there needs to be a more detailed explanation in future books, for people to continue to buy Amelia's sheer tech genius.
* The lack of developed characterization
I think one of the byproducts of having multiple narrators in The Social Code is the fact that none of the characters felt fully developed.
Hayes did a great job of setting up strong foundational backgrounds for all of the characters – Amelia’s guilt over being naïve and doing wrong earlier in life; Adam’s desperation to fit in with the rich kids at Stanford; T.J.’s determination to break out from under his dad’s shadow, etc.
But because the narration skipped around so much, the book never got any deeper than what we saw on the surface. Instead, it seemed like as the characters evolved, the readers kept missing out on pivotal parts of the journey. However, I'm hopeful that as the series continues, the characters will continued to be developed further, and more in-depth.
While the book isn't perfect - the writing can be uneven, especially in areas like characterization - I would still recommend this book to readers who are looking for a thought-provoking YA/NA contemporary book. This is a book that will make readers question their values, the importance of monetary and emotional wealth, and have them looking at the world with a different eye.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of The Social Code from St. Martin’s Griffin, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!