Published by Simon and Schuster BFYR on May 2, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Source: eARC via Edelweiss
Ava’s plan for surviving senior year at her new school is simple: fly under the radar until graduation. No boys. No attachments. No drama. But all that goes out the window when she gets drafted into the Prom Bowl—a long-standing tradition where senior girls compete in challenges and are auctioned off as prom dates to the highest bidder.
Ava joins forces with star quarterback Mark Palmer to try and get herself out of the competition, but their best laid schemes lead to self-sabotage more than anything else. And to make matters worse, they both begin to realize that the Prom Bowl isn’t all fun and games. When one event spirals dangerously out of control, Ava and Mark must decide whether shutting down the Prom Bowl once and for all is worth the price of sacrificing their futures.
Diversity Rating: 2 – It’s a Start!
Racial-Ethnic: 2 (minor character Kylie is black)
QUILTBAG: 1 (another minor character named Denise is dating a girl)
Intersectionality: 2 (Ava is a fat girl and losing weight is never part of the equation)
CHRIST ON A CRACKER, THIS BOOK MADE ME
BIGGEST TRIGGER WARNING IN HISTORY HERE: if you’re highly sensitive to sexism and sexual assault, this book is not for you and I will open the window for you to escape Scott Pilgrim-style before I dig into this quagmire of a book.
Okay, everyone out that wants to be out? Let’s get started. You’re gonna be here for a while.
I hope that bright book cover didn’t make you think this book was going to be a light read because it’s a fury-inducer the likes of which almost led to me giving the book no rating at all. There’s a lot of messed up stuff in here. It’s meant to be messed up, but then there are unintentionally messed up things going on too. Also, most of the book only happens because the two narrators refuse to communicate with one another.
Preamble: A Necessary Explanation of the Prom Bowl
Once upon a time, Patterson High School was unable to fund its prom, so the seniors came up with the idea of the Prom Bowl to provide funding. Fourteen girls voted the hottest and one girl chosen by the class president as the Wild Card make up the fifteen competitors. Three rounds ask the girls to show off their style, their talents, and how much fun they’d be as some lucky boy’s prom date, respectively.
Once the first round of competition ends, boys begin placing bids on the girl of their choice in hopes of winning out and taking her to prom, which is how the Prom Bowl earns its revenue and makes prom happen. From a set point after the end of the first and second rounds, the five girls with the lowest maximum bids are removed from the competition and whichever boy placed that maximum bid will be taking her to prom.
The winner’s reward for earning the highest maximum bid after round three’s end? She becomes prom queen.
By the time Ava’s father takes a job as the Patterson High football coach and she begins attending school there, the prom is no longer solely funded by the Prom Bowl. The tradition continues regardless and the first two rounds occur are school-sponsored. The third round?
Just you wait.
Ava and Mark: JUST COMMUNICATE, FOR GOD’S SAKE
As the new girl at school, Ava doesn’t know a thing about the Prom Bowl before she is drafted into it as the Wild Card. Neither she nor anyone else ever uses the word, but it’s clear through descriptions and the way she regularly compares herself to her noted-as-skinnier competitors that she’s fat. Her insecurities surface regularly, but she’s determined to stick out the competition to show everyone what’s what and losing weight never occurs to her. Not even during her most insecure moments. “Fat girl with a story that doesn’t revolve around weight loss” is such a low bar for representation, but Ava meets it where so many other fat girls in YA can’t.
God, that was depressing to type out and yet so true. The same was true for Dumplin‘ by Julie Murphy and is part of why that book is so beloved. Say No to the Bro will likely get Dumplin’ comparisons for that reason, but this book is inferior.
Anyway, Ava is only one of our two first-person narrators. The other is Mark, star quarterback and student council president. All it takes is for Ava to be encouraging about his football performance where his parents are negative for them to quickly bond as friends with more on the horizon. Ava may be a newbie to the tradition of Prom Bowl, but Mark knows everything about it and his best friend Cody runs the show as class president. Both Mark and Ava are angry when Cody chooses her as the Wild Card, so they team up to get her out of it.
EXCEPT THEY DON’T TEAM UP AT ALL. Rather than talking to one another and coordinating their efforts, they work separately. Inevitably, Mark’s plans ruin Ava’s plans and she ends up advancing through rounds one and two of the Prom Bowl. The plot of the book relies entirely on their inability to work together and there’s no plausible reason for why this keeps happening. Say No to the Bro is the unholy love child of the Idiot Ball and Poor Communication Kills.
Before I get into the genuinely infuriating stuff, this is entirely why I’ve given Say No to the Bro such a low rating despite the critical eye it puts on sexism and how the Prom Bowl devolved into a toxic fascimile of its former self. To quote the Poor Communication Kills page linked above:
Basically, the miscommunication or misunderstanding should be borne out of flaws and behaviors that a character has had from the start rather than something that happened because the author needed a story to go a certain way and derailed the characters involved, making them hold the Idiot Ball.
The bolding is mine and that bolded phrase is exactly what the problem with Say No to the Bro is. Nothing results from the organic behavior of characters. Things happen because Helgeson needs them to, leaving readers with the sensation of their eyes being forcibly held open as they witness the worst things possible a la Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
The Triggering Begins
It may seem like I’m using the concept of triggers lightheartedly or jokingly, but I’m not. Again, massive trigger warning for sexism and sexual assault.
The third round I’ve been so secretive about: at a Girls Gone Wild party, the finalists have to prove how much fun they’d be after prom by chugging beer. Last one standing wins. When Ava refuses to drink, two more options are offered: take off an article of clothing or kiss one of the other girls. The contest then devolves into the girls stripping (one strips until she’s wearing only her panties), making out with one another for the guys’ benefit, and one girl getting so drunk she injures herself and has to go to the hospital. Partygoers demand Ava strip and start ripping her clothes from her, like her hoodie and her bra.
It isn’t a comfortable scene to read and it isn’t meant to be a comfortable scene to read. Helgeson confronts readers with the ugly truth, but again, this scene did not result from organic character actions and reactions. It happened because Helgeson made it happen. It’s like listening to soothing music only for it to turn into a screamer mid-song with no warning: the problem exists due to deliberate action by the creator that interrupted the organic flow of events.
From here, a novel about the ugliness of antiquated, sexist traditions and how difficult it is to break with/stand up to those traditions gets so much uglier. Charlotte, Ava’s mean but pretty cousin and fellow Prom Bowl competitor, becomes downright vicious and cements her place as the novel’s one-dimensional Mean Girl. Ava and Mark come to verbal blows. Both realize that saying anything about the Prom Bowl party will put endanger their futures and alienate them from the entire community.
On a much lesser note, the book participates in the Not Like Other Girls shtick and uses the reductive “what if it’s your sister one day?” argument in regards to the Prom Bowl. When Mark takes Ava out for food, he contrasts her “healthy appetite” to cheerleaders and hookups he’s taken out before, saying they “gravitate[d] toward things like ice water and salads.” He gets called out on a few things later in the book, but this never gets addressed. Ava herself contrasts her minimal makeup collection to the many varieties the other Prom Bowl girls have, saying “as if I needed more confirmation that I’m a different breed.”
Devil’s Advocate: It Does SOME Things Right
Say No to the Bro is dead-on about how difficult it is to say something when a beloved tradition becomes harmful. Even we oppose systems like sexism, the ugly truth is that we participate in it daily. When he scrounges together money to bid on Ava, Mark willingly cooperates with and operates within the sexist Prom Bowl tradition. He’s so used to it that it never occurs to him to just ask Ava to prom without caring about Prom Bowl. Nothing can force the girls to go with whichever guy bid the highest on them, after all. The only force it has is cultural expectation. Thankfully, he’s called right out for it later on.
I hardly write anymore, but reading this immediately made me want to write fanfiction of it. Specifically, I wanted to entirely restructure it so the girls, realizing how far the tradition has fallen over the years, work together to take control and bring it down. Prom Bowl is nothing without the girls who get auctioned off, after all! That possibility is more enticing than the reality of Ava being successfully negged into taking part, doesn’t it? I prefer my inspiration to come from better places than sheer rage, but it’s inspiration nonetheless!
I have not been this deeply furious with a book since I read Moon Chosen by P.C. Cast in November 2016 and that was an entirely different brand of anger. The anger Say No to the Bro inspired is unlike any I’ve ever experienced and I would like to never experience it again.
Normally, a book that earns a negative review from me is one I don’t think is worth your time and money. That is probably true for at least a few other reviewers as well. This time, I want you to get this book and read it if you think you can handle everything I described above. I NEED SOMEONE TO TALK TO AND DEBATE ABOUT THIS BECAUSE WHAT IS THIS BOOK? Whether they love Say No to the Bro or hate it, it’s gonna be the book that makes people talk.
Just recounting everything for the sake of a review brought my anger back. I need to go vent productively now.