Miranda Kenneally’s newest book set in Tennessee (part of her Hundred Oaks series) is, as expected, an unusually fine example of thoughtful and smart young adult writing.
In Defending Taylor, Taylor Lukens is the hard-working, hard-playing daughter of a US Senator, on her way to Yale if she can just get that early admission essay done — when her life falls apart. After attending an upscale, exclusive boarding school for years, where she maintains a 4.2 GPA while starring on the soccer team, Taylor is suddenly expelled and forced to live at home with her parents again while finishing out senior year at Hundred Oaks, the local public school.
What went wrong? Taylor’s boyfriend Ben is from a poor family and attended St. Andrews on scholarship. When Taylor is found by the dorm monitors with a backpack containing pills and weed, she claims it’s hers, figuring that her dad’s clout will get her out of trouble. Wrong. Taylor’s dad won’t lift a finger to save her from the consequences of her supposed drug dealing, other than to have her attend public school with mandatory counseling rather than face any legal action. What no one knows is that the backpack was actually Ben’s, and Taylor covered for him to keep him from getting kicked out. Her heart is broken and she feels utterly betrayed when he doesn’t step forward once the consequences become clear… so not only is Taylor forced to attend an inferior school with an inferior soccer team, but her relationship is over as well.
Fitting in at a new school is hard at first, but Taylor is 100% focused on the future she’s been groomed for all her life. Highest grades, top-notch soccer career, impressive extracurriculars, then onward to Yale and a place in the family’s investment firm. Is this what she really wants? It doesn’t matter — it’s what’s expected.
Defending Taylor gives us an inside look at what happens when someone’s ambitions and someone’s heart lie in two different directions. Taylor’s parents are completely focused on politics and her father’s reeelection campaign, and there’s little time or patience for a daughter who suddenly veers off the path of high achievement and respectability. Taylor faces a senior year with no friends and the daily frustration of a poorly organized soccer team where the domineering captain resents her. Fortunately for Taylor, she does have one ally — her older brother’s best friend Ezra, inexplicably back home rather than away at Cornell where he’s supposed to be. Taylor and Ezra have always had chemistry, and when they start spending time together again, sparks fly.
I always enjoy Miranda Kenneally’s depictions of teen love. She doesn’t shy away from complicated emotions, and while the sex is a touch more explicit than in other contemporary YA novels I’ve read, it feels realistic and empowered (and safe — the characters always stop for a condom). Family dynamics are complicated as well. Being rich doesn’t necessarily mean happy, and the town and the school present a cross-section of different economic statuses.
The message in Defending Taylor has a lot to do with honesty — being honest with oneself, and being honest with the people who love you. Taylor hides the truth for so long from her family, afraid to be a snitch but at the same time suffering terribly from the ruined reputation she endures once word gets out about her supposed drug use. Meanwhile, she’s also never admitted to her parents, or even to herself, that Yale and investment banking might be the family tradition, but might not be her own true path. On top of the honesty theme, there’s also an ongoing message about stress, pressure, and having fun. Taylor’s guidance counselor asks Taylor what she does for fun, and she’s pretty stumped. Fun? School, soccer, studying all night — Taylor’s life is non-stop pressure, from herself as well as from her family, and she doesn’t even realize how unhealthy it is until she’s forced to take a hard look at her life, once it becomes clear that her hard work still might not be enough to overcome scandal and disgrace.
Probably the only bit of this otherwise terrific story that seemed a little off to me had to do with her father’s campaign. When someone leaks the news about Taylor’s expulsion from boarding school for having prescription drugs in her possession that weren’t prescribed for her, it creates a scandal that ultimately costs her father the election. And I couldn’t help but feel… really?? The man has been a Senator for years, has been a successful politician for years more, has a family that’s always been upstanding and has two older kids who have exemplary behavior… and he loses an election because his 17-year-old had a lapse of judgement? Seems like a very lame reason for someone who was supposed to win easily to suddenly lose an election. But what do I know? This is Tennessee, and the politics trend toward conservative, so maybe that could be enough to sink the career of an anti-drug legislator… but it felt unlikely to me.
Other than that, I truly enjoyed Defending Taylor. I liked Taylor’s backbone and self-sufficiency, her dedication to her own success, and her underlying belief in treating others with decency. She’s clearly a very good friend, and becomes a unifying force on her soccer team once she earns the other girls’ trust with her positive energy. Taylor’s relationship with Ezra is hot and steamy, but founded on mutual friendship and liking, not just hormones.
It’s not necessary to have read the other Hundred Oaks books to enjoy Defending Taylor, but for those who have, you’ll enjoy the little glimpses of characters from previous books. You can really start with any of the books in the series — and if you like one, give a few others a try. All feature strong, athletic girls who aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves, even while dealing with family complications of all shapes and sizes.
Title: Defending Taylor
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: July 5, 2016
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley