Review for Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

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My Summary: Reshma Kapoor, top ranked student of Alexander Graham Bell High School, will to get into Stanford. Not “wants to,” but “will.” Because she is willing to do anything to make it happen, even if it means bending or breaking the rules, and then some. For her “hook” to make herself stand out among the competition, she decides to write a young adult novel about a fictional version of herself. But the real Reshma Kapoor is a study nerd, without the appeal to the mainstream YA market. To make herself into the perfect YA protagonist, Reshma sets out to do “normal” teenage things and create a plot and character arc for herself. Unfortunately for her, things don’t always go as planned.

Review:

Reading this book was an interesting experience because I was valedictorian of my high school, back in the day (Class of 2011, so not forever ago but still long enough for there to be emotional distance). I didn’t get to the top until my final semester, but I graduated first. And unlike Reshma, it wasn’t because I clawed my way to the top on purpose. It kind of just happened, without me ever planning to make it happen. I can empathize with her struggles. I, too, applied to Stanford (I was ranked 3rd at the time of submitting apps), and I, too, agonized over whether I’d really stand out among the applicants to the various elite universities I was applying to (also applied to Princeton, UPenn, and MIT, which are similar level of competitiveness). In short, Reshma is in a situation very similar to my younger self, but she is a very different kind of person.

She is not likable (actually, I’m not sure I was all that likable, but I had friends, at least). She is not supposed to be likable. She doesn’t have a strong sense of compassion or justice or any of those traits that standard heroines tend to have (more on this later). In fact, her most prominent feature is her absolute ruthlessness. You could say she’s an anti-hero.

And yet, somehow, despite being unlikable, she pulls you in. You can’t help but respect her strength of will, even as it drives her to do ethically questionable or straight up bad things. Part of it is just the fact that the system isn’t fair to begin with. Reshma is fully aware of this and uses her knowledge of how the system works to her advantage. To her, the appearance of success (by a flawed and biased and rigged system’s standards of success) is more important than actual success. Shortcuts, loopholes, blackmail, and lies are fair game to her.

Eventually, all of this starts of catch up to her, and it’s fascinating to watch how she handles these curveballs because she is so relentlessly practical about it all. Assess the damage, find the most efficient solution, move on and keeping working toward her goal. But her solutions are rarely real solutions, they’re more like bandaids on the problem, so things escalate and get worse. But also entertaining.

Another element that I liked about the book was the setting. A lot of contemporary YA novels take place in a general suburban environment that could be anywhere, but Enter Title Here is firmly grounded in the culture of Silicon Valley. And while tech startups are a part of that culture and are referenced in the story, what really makes Enter Title Here a convincing representation of the area is the racial climate, particularly as it relates to academics.

Race is not sidestepped but rather addressed explicitly in various ways throughout the novel. At the very beginning of her novel, Reshma lays out the racial makeup of not only her school but the various cliques or types of students in a very true-to-reality assessment. I didn’t attend high school in the Bay Area, but I attended a school where the upper echelons of the school were dominated by white and Asian students, and I recognize the “study machines, smart slackers, and perfects” in them.

The overall academic environment of Reshma’s school is so relatable and real to me because I lived it. The constant recalculating of gpa and ranking, the strategizing of which courses to take based on gpa considerations, the desperate measures to keep or change your rank, etc. My high school housed a magnet program for the entire school district, and some kid was bitter and wanted the school to exclude the magnet program students from the school’s rankings because they took up most of the top 10% (in Texas, students in the top 10% get automatic admission to Texas public universities…ish; god, Fisher v. Texas just came to mind). He felt they had an unfair advantage (they didn’t). I was not in the magnet program, but I ended up graduating first, so that kind of undermined his argument.

Reshma’s literature teacher Ms. Ratcliffe is the embodiment of the quintessential casually racist white hippie, down the to Chinese tattoo (I rolled my eyes so hard when I saw that, like “oh god, she’s one of Those People”). She is superficially sweet and tries to project an image of open-mindedness, but her questions and statements when speaking to Reshma reveal assumptions and biases based in racist stereotypes. I think every POC has encountered a Ms. Ratcliffe at some point in their life, especially if they’ve lived in a so-called liberal city inhabited by many white liberals (*coughAustincough*).

Although Reshma champions a lawsuit accusing the schools and teachers of racism for self-serving reasons (to protect her grades and first-place rank), she’s onto something when talking about the differential treatment of white students and Asian students. Discrimination against Asians is real, and so is white privilege. White resentment and fear of Asian competition and domination in academics is very real. White flight from Asian-majority areas is a documented phenomenon, particularly in the Silicon Valley area, where the story takes place.

Another thing I appreciated about this book was the characterization of Reshma’s parents. While the strict Asian parents are out there, so are the more laid back ones who don’t put ridiculous amounts of pressure on their kids, and they rarely get acknowledged or represented. In Enter Title Here, Reshma is the one who is obsessed with climbing to the top; her parents are the one concerned that she’s taking it too far. My parents were also in the latter category. When I was in college and having literal panic attacks over academics, my parents told me to not obsess over my grades and focus on my health instead (didn’t really happen, oops).

Aside from breaking stereotypes, her parents make her a more sympathetic character because she genuinely cares about them.

Which brings me to the next point: this book is very meta. A young adult novel about someone writing a young adult novel is a brilliant way to comment on the writing process. Reshma bounces ideas off of her therapist, who’s also writing a novel, and they discuss ways to intensify the drama in the story, among other things. In these discussions and in her document with the “honest” version of her novel, Reshma lays bare all of the essential ingredients to a successful YA novel: a likable, normal American heroine (very much coded as white American); an antagonist; major plot points such as making friends, getting a boyfriend, having sex, etc.; emotional arc; a climax; and so on.

Her quest to manufacture these elements out of her [supposedly] not-very-YA-heroine life creates humor in many situations. She complains to her mother about not being a good protagonist because her “quirks are not lovable”: she is not “clumsy,” “overwhelmed by life,” or “unlucky in love.” I think anyone who has read enough YA will recognize these tropes for what they are. I was especially amused by the “clumsy” one. At one point in my life, I mused that I might be a Mary-Sue because I’m clumsy.

Sometimes the humor is because her attempts at making herself an ideal YA protagonist directly reference or call out the stereotypes that are placed on Asian Americans. For example, in the very beginning, she says,

“I bet you love this, don’t you, Ms. Montrose (her editor)? White people like to think we’re all emotionless study machines. They tell themselves that their kids might not do as well in school, but at least they know how to enjoy life.

Well, I’ll spend a month enjoying life and then, oh, I expect it’ll ‘transform’ me.”

And when Reshma hunts for an antagonist for her novel, she tells her mom:

“I’ve got it…You’re the villain. People will really sympathize with a girl who had a crazy tiger mom that forced her to work too hard. You messed me up. That’s my angle.”

Whether the author intended it or not, these bits reminded me of the stories I’ve heard about Asian American authors getting their manuscripts featuring Asian characters rejected because the publisher has an unspoken quota on Asian protagonists, or authors being pressured to change the race of their character from Asian to white. How so? Well, I think Reshma’s comments reveal the way whiteness is valued in the publishing industry (and beyond). Not just white people, but traits that are associated with white people. Even though Reshma isn’t actually a stereotype (she’s definitely not emotionless, for one), the nature of stereotyping is to reduce people to such, so she has to actively debunk and break the stereotype in order to appeal to the white gaze.

And the juxtaposition of her writing herself as less stereotypically Asian to be an ideal protagonist while making her mother more stereotypically Asian to be an ideal antagonist speaks volumes about what the presumed white audience expects and values.

And of course, being who she is, Reshma uses the stereotypes to her advantage. As regrettable as it is that the stereotypes matter to begin with, it’s funny because there’s a “I’ve played you using your own game” kind of vibe.

In other instances, the humor arises from the contrast of Reshma being dead serious about this novel and the sheer absurdity of what she’s about to attempt–or demand from someone who is supposed to be a character in her novel–in order to write it. She is an unwitting character in a comedy.

I think the funniest thing, at least in the “ironic funny” sense, is that even though she pegs herself as not a very good protagonist, the result of her self-aware and self-serving quest to become a better protagonist makes her a good protagonist, just not in the way she intended.

The final thing I wanted to comment on for this review is the formatting of the book, i.e. the epistolary format. It’s written in first-person from Reshma’s point of view and is supposed to be the “honest” version of the novel draft she’s writing, so you get to see everything that happens behind the scenes, her thought processes, etc. There are sections where there are emails or text message exchanges that are formatted to be like the real thing, creating a sense a realism, like you’re seeing the world through Reshma’s eyes as things happen. You’re completely immersed in Reshma’s world. Even when you don’t like her, you’re going along for the ride. And what a ride it is.

Recommendation: Read this book. It’s great.

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