Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich was released on 5th August 2010. It was published by Serpent's Tail and the book is 224 pages long. Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review.
Thirteen year old Seymour is not a geek but he also is not popular at his expensive prep school. He is a little overweight and this has earned him the nickname 'Chunk Style'. His life consists of being in the middle of the pack with nothing exciting ever happening. Until he meets Elliot Allagash...which is when he pushes Seymour down the stairs.
Elliot is extremely rich and his father had to pay just to get him into Glendale after being expelled from so many other schools. He doesn't care about being the new kid either, all he cares about is learning how things work this time around. To put his theories to the test, Elliot plans to make Seymour the most popular kid in school. Seymour has no idea what he has let himself in for though. His life is about to change completely.
What I thought
I hadn't heard of this book before receiving it for review so a big thank you to my bloggr friend Jazz for getting me a copy.
I felt really sorry for Seymour to begin with. For starters, the way he introduces his parents to Elliot is by telling them that he pushed him down the stairs. I was kind of glad, but a bit worried, when Seymour and Elliot became friends. If you can call it friendship anyway. As the two start to spend more time together, it is quite clear that Elliot is walking all over Seymour, even if Seymour cant see that. Seymour does start off well though, questioning Elliot's choices in his schemes and plans but being young and naive, he was easily influenced.
Elliot and his father were both interesting characters. Being from an extremely wealthy family, they have never really had to want for much in life as it has always just been handed to them. Both characters think that money will buy them anything but the one thing it cant seem to buy them is genuine friendships and relationships and it was quite sad that neither had these things in their lives. Elliot was so sure of himself with a lot of confidence but he also had quite the temper when things didn't go his way. What I found most strange about him though was his strange obsession with watercress sandwiches though!
Elliot Allagash has a really interesting take on schools and one that I haven't seen done in a book before. This book takes a look at how a high school works and what would need to be done in order to make a student go from unpopular to extremely popular and how other people would react. I loved all of the crazy ideas that Elliot came up with in order to further his experiment/ Seymour's popularity and some of them I really couldn't believe were happening. I would love to know if someone ever did try to do this in a real school so that I could see if it would work or not though.
Elliot Allagash is a fascinating, fast paced coming of age story and one that I enjoyed thoroughly. Simon Rich injects new life into characters which could have turned out bland and unoriginal. His witty writing had me hooked and I found myself giggling to myself throughout the book. Beforehand, Rich was an unknown author to me but now I will be looking out for anything else he writes. I do think that Elliot Allagash is aimed slightly more towards boys but I still really liked it regardless.
Elliot manipulates, lies, cheats, blackmails, forges, attacks people without reason, vandalises. He lives together with his father who hasn't worked a day in his life and is more often drunk than sober. His only social contact is a crook working for them who helps him commit whatever offence he thinks of.
Elliot is thirteen years old. And rich.
He's not only rich but stinking rich, the offspring of a family in which no member has ever had to work since at the beginning of the 18th century a forbear invented how to make paper from wood and had the invention patented.
How to pass one's life then? Certainly not by studying what a school curriculum dictates. After being expelled from more than a dozen top-tier private schools Elliot has landed in the school at the bottom of the list. He can't be expelled from this one because his father has donated enough money to make them keep his son. In order to while away his time and fight his boredom he picks Seymour Herson, an overweight, nerdy loser, the school bullies' constant victim, as 'a hobby' and offers him to make him the most popular kid. "I could make you a king. Admired by girls, respected by boys, feared by all." Seymour has only to agree to do everything Elliot tells him.
He plans his classmate's transmogrification with military precision. He knows "...that money trumps everything...that nothing else in the world matters." He's not only brilliant at business matters but has also profound psychological insight and no scruples whatsoever.
The novel is told in the first person perspective from Seymour's point of view, we learn which adventures he encounters, how his lifestyle and his character are affected and where Elliot's scheming finally leads him.
It has been argued if the novel is a Junior book or adult reading matter. Of course, a book on kids isn't per se a book for kids. It depends on how it is written, if the language is on a level young readers can understand and if there's more in the book than just an account of adventures. In my opinion Elliot Allagash can satisfy young readers as well as adult ones. It's a short and easy read, funny at times, a bright pubescent reader won't have a problem understanding it - provided they are into reading books at all. The description of American high school life is entertaining, thanks to innumerable movies set in American high schools also readers from other countries will be able to follow.
Adult readers may be fascinated by Elliot's view of the world, what he says about the working of the American society is cynical but true. This does not mean that he's right down to the last detail. Unfortunately he's only had contact in his young life with the baddies for whom a fellow human being's needs and dreams are of no consequence.
Critics have mentioned the Pygmalion, the Frankenstein, even the Cindarella story to describe what he does with Seymour. All nonsense, says I. He doesn't intend to create a beautiful being he finally falls in love with, he doesn't intend to create a human being from scratch and the 'happily-ever-after' motif of fairy tales is completely off the point. In my opinion the deal Seymour has with Elliot is a deal with the Devil, or the Faustian bargain, which is a widespread motif in Western literature. Seymour being Faust and Elliot Mephistopheles. Elliot offers Seymour power and wants his soul as an exchange. What kind of ending is possible for such a constellation? Already in the bible we read, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Matthew 16:26)
This may sound a bit far-fetched and over-interpreted. I concede that the motif isn't fully executed, but echoes are certainly there. The way the author deals with it and the outcome he's thought of makes reading the novel worthwhile for adults. In the traditional Faust stories and plays Faust is always the main character, but here Elliot Allagash, the boy with the qualities of a Mephistopheles, is also a protagonist. From the beginning he's aroused my sympathy, sickly all the time what with living on watercress sandwiches and martinis only. After all, he's only a poor motherless and friendless freak.
Elliot Allagash is Simon Rich's debut novel. He's introduced on the cover as 'the youngest ever writer on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live'. He lives in Brooklyn. "Where else?" I'm tempted to ask. Every decent American writer who cares for their reputation seems to live there, it must be the place in the world with the highest density of writers. Simon Rich is 25 years old, he looks extremely young, his pic could show his fictitious protagonist Seymor Herson.
Meet thirteen year-old Seymor Herson, he's one of life's losers, the least popular boy at Glendale a second rate private school in New York. Seymor is on the lowest rung of the social pecking order even the school geeks and nerds look down on him. He is a loner, he has made a virtue of mediocrity and is happy to simply survive his time at Glendale rather than try and excel at anything. His parents don't expect much of him and he sets his sights consistently low.
Meet thirteen year-old Elliot Allagash heir to one of the largest fortunes in America. One of Elliot's ancestors invented something rather useful and his family have been reaping the rewards ever since. Elliot who makes a habit of being thrown out of exclusive private schools has finally ended up at Glendale whose reliance on his family's funding means that he cannot be expelled despite his various misdemeanours. Since expulsion from Glendale is not an option Elliot embarks on an equally difficult project to occupy his scheming mind, to turn Seymor into the most popular boy in school and beyond that to turn him into a young prodigy, the talk of the New York elite. Can he achieve this? And at what cost?
Some books are plot led, some are character driven and this is certainly the latter. The two unlike teenage friends in this novel are fabulous literary inventions. Elliot is a masterful creation. He is delightfully immoral, an evil genius, a Bond villain in the making. The schemes he thinks of to advance his self imposed mission of elevating Seymor to the highest echelons of the school hierarchy are cruel, outrageous but wonderfully imaginative. Even the most righteous minded reader cannot help but be carried along by their sheer audaciousness and Machiavellian brilliance. While Elliot is the force of nature that runs through the novel his character can never be truly engaging, he's just too bad for that! Thus Seymor takes on the sympathetic everyman role, an ineffectual boy who accepts his place as school whipping boy if not with grace with a resigned stoicism that makes you side with him from the very beginning. With Elliot behind him he can't fail but we soon see that his relationship with Elliot is a classic Faustian pact and in the end there has to be some painful retribution. In the end in spite of the moral deficit of many of the characters this is a morality tale.
Simon Rich is still a young author and this is his first novel. He cut his teeth as the youngest ever writer for 'Saturday Night Live' the iconic US comedy sketch show and can be best described as a old fashioned humorist in the same way as Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde. The voice he gives to his young characters is very authentic as is his understanding of teenage preoccupations. The story describes a series of increasingly complicated ever more shocking scams and plots masterminded by Elliot in his attempts to re-invent Seymor. These are punctuated by hilarious back stories featuring some the secondary characters as we slowly find out why Elliot has become the way he is. The best of these secondary characters is the mysterious James the Allagash's enigmatic servant come henchman, a master of disguise and unsurpassed trickster himself. Terry, Elliot's drunken multibillionaire father is also an interesting creation. Having lived all his life in extraordinary wealth without having to do any real work he occupies his days living a life filled many excesses. You can guess where Elliot gets it from.
A large part of the pleasure in reading the book is discovering the sheer unashamed brashness of Elliot's next big schemes and the skilful and meticulous ways they are executed. I hope this is not indicative of Simon Rich real state of mind!
The relationship between Elliot and Seymor is well observed and what starts off as a one-sided patronage on the part of Elliot develops into a true friendship or at least as close to friendship as Elliot is capable of. In many ways the two boys need each other and although their relationship cannot be said to be beneficial for each other in the long run it does help both of them achieve a degree of maturity. Easy comparisons can be made to 'Catcher in the Rye' or more recently 'Vernon God Little' but while the teenage characters are certainly as distinctive I don't think this novel examines teenage angst or growing pains in such an insightful way.
Despite the obvious humour in the story there are some dark undercurrents as Elliot's actions show his ruthlessness and cruelty towards others. There is also more than a hint of sadness in the plight of some of the characters. It is to Simon Rich's credit that he has managed to write a story that can be successful on many different emotional levels.
Overall it is a very enjoyable if relatively short read including some extremely funny laugh out loud moments. The author's skill as a screenwriter means that the story already has a cinematic feel to it and is crying out to be adapted for the big screen and I for one would like to see more of the unashamedly wicked Elliot Allagash.
'Elliot Allagash' by Simon Rich can be bought from Amazon.co.uk in paperback (224 pages) for £6.99 (incl. p&p) at the time of writing this review.
A shorter version of this review was previously published on Bookbag.co.uk
~Seymour - the geeky kid who doesn't fit in~
Seymour is the least popular kid at Glendale school, a Manhattan fee-paying school that's "small and getting smaller every year". He feels bad that he's not doing better because his parents can't really afford the fees to send him there and their investment in his education doesn't look like paying off. Of the 41 children in his year at his Manhattan school, he ranks himself as the 41st in terms of popularity but on the whole he's not too worried about that. Yes, he wishes he had a bit more status and particularly wishes that Jessica, the 'hot' girl with the breasts who borrows his pencils during detention, would notice him but he's pretty resigned to being the butt of class jokes and getting called names. When a 42nd pupil joins the school everything is set to change for Seymour. The 'new boy' is like nobody he's ever met before or is ever likely to meet again.
~Elliot - money buys power~
Elliot Allagash the new boy is wealthy beyond the imagination of most mortals and he has his eye on Seymour. Elliot has been expelled from every school he's ever been to but his father has donated a lot of money to Glendale so there's no way he can get expelled no matter what he does. And of course he knows it. With great wealth comes great ennui and there are no limits to the immense depths of devious intelligence where Elliot is concerned. He needs stimulation, he needs a project and like Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, he spots a loser in Seymour and decides to transform him into the most popular boy in the school. He tells Seymour that all he has to do is "exactly what I tell you".
~Can you turn lead into gold?~
Aided and abetted by James, Elliot's hired man, and financed by his father Terry, Elliot soon teaches Seymour that there's no such thing as 'can't' when you are absolutely loaded. He hires a professional basketball coach and takes a boy so physically useless that he can barely bounce a ball and makes him a sportsman - only to then get him to turn down a place on the school team. Whilst Seymour soon sees the massive benefits in his Faustian pact with Elliot, he also gets glimpses of just how devious his friend and mentor can be if he's crossed. People who get in Elliot's way are made to pay in complex and finely crafted revenge scenarios.
When reading you can't help but assume this whole plot is heading for the biggest catastrophic car-crash ending of all time but maybe it will or maybe it won't. Can anyone stand up to Elliot and his father and survive? Can Seymour become his own (young) man and develop his own place in life, like Frankenstein's monster taking on an identity his maker never intended?
~The hottest teen novel since........whatever the last one was~
It is of course a morality tale and a lot of the book is really quite predictable but not in any unpleasant way. It's a light, easy read that is probably designed for a much younger audience than me. I knew where it was going and I was happy to join the characters on their journey even if I'm a long way past high school. As Elliot manipulates both Seymour and those around him, we come to learn that being as wealthy as Croesus doesn't guarantee happiness for either Elliot or his father, a man who buys paintings and works of art so that he can destroy them and stop anyone else from every having the pleasure of seeing them. Terry the father seems to only be able to communicate with his son through Seymour as his chosen intermediary. Seymour learns that being immensely popular isn't quite as brilliant as he expected and that getting to the top can mean treading on others who don't deserve it. Perhaps he's not really cut out for ruthlessness but Elliot has big plans for his protégé.
Simon Rich is just 26 years old and his publicity shots suggest he could pass for 14. He is both exceptionally youthful and ludicrously successful - you can't help wonder if in their own ways both Seymour AND Elliot have a little bit of Simon Rich in their DNA. He's already published two collections of short stories, he's won several writing prizes and has worked on Saturday Night Live for 3 seasons which would probably impress me a lot if I was American, but I'm not. Undoubtedly his youth gives him an authentic voice for Seymour and his descriptions of what it's like to be at a second rate school are drawn from his personal experience. He remembers the yearnings for the popular girl, the disappointments of being compared with the cool kids and being found wanting and I can only hope that he got into university without resorting to the worst of Elliot's tactics.
I read Elliot Allagash in just a few hours on planes and in airports. It's a very easy read. I'd perhaps have appreciated a much darker ending than I got and a greater sense of 'consequence' for the games that were played along the way, but all in all, I think this book will do very well with its target audience of teenagers and young adults. I enjoyed it very much but treated it as the fairy tale that I think it's intended to be.
My copy was supplied by the publisher Cannongate and an earlier version of this review appears on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich
Published by Canongate