Review: The Gatekeepers by Jen Lancaster

Summary: Anyone passing through North Shore, IL, would think this was the most picture-perfect place ever, with all the lakefront mansions and manicured hedges and iron gates. No one talks about the fact that the brilliant, talented kids in this town have a terrible history of throwing themselves in front of trains, and that there’s rampant opioid abuse that often leads to heroin usage.

Meet Simone, the bohemian transfer student from London, who is thrust into the strange new reality of the American high school; Mallory, the hyper-competitive queen bee; and Stephen, the first generation genius who struggles with crippling self-doubt. Each one is shocked when lovable football player Braden takes his own life and the tragedy becomes a suicide cluster. With so many students facing their own demons, can they find a way to save each other—as well as themselves?

Genre: young adult, contemporary
Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Gatekeepers is loosely based off Lake Forest High School in Illinois, where students in an extremely wealthy town with an over-the-top, ritzy school were suddenly committing suicide by jumping in front of oncoming trains. This is a tragic, fascinating case, and I actually found myself spiraling deeper into news articles (Chicago Magazine has a wonderful write-up) and researching the origins of Gatekeepers, and what I’ve decided is this is an important story to talk about. I just don’t know that it should have been written by this author.

I commend authors for writing young adult, because I feel like you’re either phenomenal at it, or you have absolutely no idea how to write teenagers and it comes off as cringey. This book is 100% trash in terms of depicting real teens.

We have each stereotype of the high school student body here: a nerdy outcast, a queen bee with an eating disorder, a loner stoner, the jock who is loved by everyone, the artsy foreign kid. I know these tropes do exist in real life sometimes, but it was like the author just picked the most cliched and wrote about those instead of fleshing out the in-between characters, the ones who don’t fit into those stereotypes. I had a hard time feeling any empathy for these characters because they’re so cut and dry, so over-the-top and cliché that they became dull.

Mallory is the exception to this rule, where her first chapters are strictly about how much she loves her school, how she over-exercises and smells food before throwing it away instead of eating it, how she ignores anyone below her. After the first student death in the book, we see some depth to her, get to see the layers underneath the perfect princess that everyone else sees, but it came off like she was a different character altogether and not the same person from the beginning. The change here is so abrupt that it caught me off guard and wasn’t very believable.

But the most embarrassing writing in this book comes from the dialogue. I tend to play a game when I read books where I try to guess when it was written based off the slang used or the technology mentioned. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves in writing, because it instantly ages the story. For obviously older books, it’s understandable since they were written when people had pagers and landlines, not smartphones. But in a contemporary YA, as soon as the author mentions a specific social media platform or version of their phone, I roll my eyes. This book was published in 2017 and it shows.

Mallory is constantly saying “hashtag _____.” There’s a sentence along the lines of “We were all members of Panem, waiting to see who would be next,” which took me quite a while to understand since The Hunger Games hasn’t been relevant in five years. A girl is described as having hair that’s “full Lovato,” and even though Demi Lovato might be a big enough name that you pick up, can you picture what their hair looked like in 2017 to give you that frame of reference, considering celebrities change their hairstyles all the time? No? Me either. There are so many pop culture references here that it’s like Lancaster was grasping at straws to adapt to a younger audience, but it doesn’t work. It’s embarrassing and reminds me of the “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” meme.

What’s frustrating about this book is that way too much of it is focused on these students arguing about pop culture (how many times did I have to hear the Tupac vs Biggie argument??) and falling into their clichés, that it takes until the last few chapters for everyone to come together and focus on the real issue at present, which is their classmates committing suicide. Three students die before the chapters stop revolving around high school politics, underage parties, and stupid love triangles. One student would die, and the next chapter would be like nothing ever happened. I don’t know if this was done intentionally so Lancaster could show what life is really like for these kids, but it felt like such a waste of time when the bigger picture kept getting ignored.

That being said, I do think Lancaster did a great job depicting real-life scenarios that these kids go through. Reading about these students being under extreme pressure to have the best high school experience and ensure they graduate with the highest grades so they can get into college gave me some flashbacks to my own high school experience. Even though I didn’t attend a school that looks like an actual castle, I remembered how much pressure and stress I was put under.

For these students, it’s amplified ten-fold, as their families are all wealthy, they live in mansions, and are expected to get into Ivy League schools as doctors. Three extracurriculars is not enough to stand out amongst their peers (having no extracurriculars is a disgrace), and unless you have a perfect SAT/ACT score, you might as well forget it. It’s terrifying to be expected to have your entire life mapped out for you at such a young age and live seemingly perfect lives, be the absolute best of the best when you’re 17.

The point of this book is that every teen has issues, even ones you’d expect wouldn’t given their socioeconomic status. These students who come from wealthy backgrounds still deal with family issues, acceptance, romance, and addiction. And like most teenagers, they feel the need to suppress those problems and their emotions in order to maintain the perfect façade. Some of them bury their issues so deeply they can survive. Some burn out after high school and have to admit defeat. And others are still not as lucky.

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