Review: Fresh by Margot Wood

  • Title: Fresh
  • Author: Margot Wood
  • Genre: contemporary
  • Intended audience: young adult
  • Format read: eARC
  • Publisher: Amulet Books
  • Pub date: August 3, 2021
  • Trigger warnings: drinking, sexual assault
  • Rating: 2/5 Stars

I received an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

A hilarious and vulnerable coming-of-age story about the thrilling new experiences––and missteps––of a girl’s freshman year of college.

Some students enter their freshman year of college knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives. Elliot McHugh is not one of those people. But picking a major is the last thing on Elliot’s mind when she’s too busy experiencing all that college has to offer—from dancing all night at off-campus parties, to testing her RA Rose’s patience, to making new friends, to having the best sex one can have on a twin-sized dorm room bed. But she may not be ready for the fallout when reality hits. When the sex she’s having isn’t that great. When finals creep up and smack her right in the face. Or when her roommate’s boyfriend turns out to be the biggest a-hole. Elliot may make epic mistakes, but if she’s honest with herself (and with you, dear reader), she may just find the person she wants to be. And maybe even fall in love in the process . . . Well, maybe.

The majority of the ARCs I get approved for are not highly anticipated books for me. They are usually ones that I requested when I was bored and scrolling through NetGalley. But not Fresh. I actively sought it out because I was so excited to hear about it. Fresh is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma set at a college in Boston with a bisexual protagonist. On the surface this book was tailor made for me. It turns out the premise was tailor made for me, the actual book was not. I had originally considered rating this higher because I am too nice and hate giving books low ratings. But when I sat down and thought about what I did and didn’t like, I could only come up with one good thing to say, and a whole lot of bad.

I’ll get the good thing out of the way out front: it was incredibly readable. While I certainly didn’t enjoy my reading experience, I also didn’t feel like I was slogging through it. Whereas some books I don’t like but decide I need to read to keep my NetGalley ratio up I spend a lot of time going “oh I wish I could just DNF this” I only wished to DNF Fresh about once, closer to the end of the book. It was just super easy to read.

I have read other people’s reviews where they say they were pulled in from the first page. I was repelled from the first page. The very first sentence of the book mimics the first sentence of Emma. A classic technique and appropriate for any retelling with lines as memorable as Austen. Unfortunately I was immediately jarred by a simultaneous fourth wall break and dramatic tonal shift into what I would soon become acquainted with as the annoying voice of Elliot McHugh.

These are two aspects of the book that definitely go on the bad list. I found Elliot’s voice to be way too immature for a college student. Which is maybe part of the point, but she sounds like a middle schooler. “Tender chicken” was a completely overused joke, even though she has lots of sex she can’t manage to use the proper names for things, and she was over-the-top melodramatic 99% of the time. She reminded me of some middle grade protagonists like Judy Moody or Ramona. And that chaotic melodrama is fine for a ten year old, but I did not appreciate it in an eighteen year old. And I get that Elliot isn’t necessarily supposed to be likeable, but there is a difference between unlikeable and obnoxious.

I love a good fourth wall break, it is one of my favorite techniques in writing, it doesn’t matter what the medium is. But I never liked Elliot’s fourth wall breaks. Mostly because they were way too glaring, rather than being a clever slip-in. The footnotes were too frequent and mostly unnecessary, the couple of “choose your own adventure” bits that were added in were both weird and too infrequent to really make it a thing, and when Elliot addressed the reader, I still never felt like she was addressing me personally. I felt like she was addressing some other theoretical reader separate from me.

Which brings me to my next issue: I could not relate to one character in this entire book. None of them. I can usually find at least one trait in a main character to relate to but I just…couldn’t. The only thing Elliot cares about is having people like her and having sex (which are like…at the bottom of the list of things I care about right after the fiftieth tell-all book from a Trump administration official and the Facebook posts of people I barely knew in high school), so that is certainly part of the issue. I could maybe relate to Lucy, but she wasn’t developed enough. And to the extent she was a character and not a plot device, she was a pretty basic ingenue. I completely disagreed with Rose’s characterization (and even though I wasn’t a fan of her from the beginning, I called it off completely after she was VAPING! IN THE STAIRWELL! AS AN RA! That is both rude and irresponsible.), so I couldn’t relate to her either. The only characters I even liked were Elliot’s family. Possibly this is a side effect of the fact that they were the only characters that Elliot actually liked.

There were a few other qualms I had with the book. There’s a really ridiculous and unnecessary plot point where Elliot gets bacteria on her butt (remember what I said about middle grade vibes?). There’s one line that says “I have ADHD, and not in the casual, problematic way people like to self-diagnose” which I think could have used a better choice of words. There’s a difference between self-diagnosing and saying “haha I just can’t focus, I’m so ADHD.” Overall, the book thinks it’s way more funny than it actually is. It is trying so hard to be funny I could practically hear the laugh track playing. The entire thing is saying “wink wink nudge nudge isn’t this so funny” but I don’t think I laughed at all.

The final issue I have was the structure of the storyline. Overall, Fresh felt more like vignettes from Elliot’s first year rather than a coherent novel. The first five chapters take place during the first two days of her freshman year. We then jump six weeks ahead where we get a montage-like chapter that takes us through to Thanksgiving, where we get another montage-like chapter to get us to the end of the semester. Then we have an interlude followed by three chapters of Elliot’s winter break, and at that point I quit keeping track but we basically yet again montage our way to the end of the year. And overall, a lot of what happened felt like super disconnected events. It was the type of storytelling you do at a party, not in a novel.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to totally put anyone off this book. If it sounds like something that you would enjoy, you should give it a try, I know lots of other people have loved it. But I do want to make it clear that it will not be right for you. It certainly wasn’t right for me. And honestly, I am incredibly disappointed I didn’t find a new favorite. I loved the premise of Fresh, but ultimately I couldn’t enjoy the characters, the voice, or the overall storyline. It was a book that I sadly did not connect to.

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