Title: 500 Words or Less
Author: Juleah del Rosario
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Poetry
Copy: Digital ARC
To put it quite bluntly, I have a lot of mixed feelings about 500 Words or Less, especially when in relation to the expectations that I had before diving in. After learning that Juleah del Rosario is a Filipino author, I was incredibly excited to read her debut novel told in verse (being a Filipino myself and all that). I’ve only read one verse novel before — The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, which I ended up thoroughly enjoying. However, for me, 500 Words or Less seemed to pale in comparison.
500 Words or Less follows a Chinese-American girl who cheated on her now-ex-boyfriend with his best friend and, in doing so, lost her relationship and severely tainted her reputation in school. In an attempt to save face among her peers, Nic capitalizes on her writing skills and begins offering her fellow senior students to write their college admissions essays for them.
The premise is intriguing and quite novel. However, the execution left a lot to be desired. I think this mainly stemmed from the limitations of its format. Frankly, I just could not see why this story had to be told in verse.
In The Poet X, slam poetry was a crucial element to the story and to the protagonist’s sense of identity, which is why I understood and appreciated the rationale of telling the story in verse. On the contrary, poetry had little to no part in or influence on Nic or on the plot itself. Unlike Xiomara (the main character of The Poet X), Nic did not use poetry as a coping mechanism. In fact, at no point was it even mentioned in the book that Nic wrote poems.
Related review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.
Additionally, a story’s format must be deliberately chosen with a specific goal in mind. One common purpose for writing in the form of verses is to create a bigger impact on the readers, which would not be achieved in the regular storytelling format. With that said, I don’t think the verse format gave any additional value to the story or to the impact of the story.
Honestly, I think the impact of 500 Words or Less would have been more beautifully delivered in narrative form. I will admit that there were several passages that left me stunned because I could relate, but being able to relate to something isn’t necessarily the same as feeling impacted by something. There were a number of interesting ideas introduced in the book but were unfortunately not thoroughly explored or given enough depth.
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I was a bit worried about the possibility that this book might inadvertently glorify or romanticize cheating in relationships. Thankfully, that did not happen at all! Infidelity was handled with remarkable sensitivity, and even more so, 500 Words or Less tentatively explored the gender-based unfairness in infidelity.
As they say, it takes two to tango, but unsurprisingly, the third party (otherwise known as the guy Nic cheated with) not only had his reputation intact but was easily and immediately forgiven as well. (One of my ongoing researches involves studying Filipino affair films and marital infidelity in the Philippines. According to a number of past studies, a man cheating on his partner is viewed as more tolerable than a woman committing the same act.)
The story shined the brightest during the scenes that focused on Nic’s diasporic experiences as a Chinese-American teenager and her journey towards growth and self-discovery. These scenes held the most depth, and it was only during these scenes that I could really empathize with Nic’s plight.
Unfortunately, Nic’s character development was overshadowed by the confusing, halfhearted sort-of-romance that took up a large majority of the plot. There was also a particular event in 500 Words or Less that made me feel quite uncomfortable because (1) it came out of nowhere and felt disjointed from the plot, and (2) it was used as a plot device to force character development.
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What I liked the most about this book was the themes it tackled. Despite her occasional unlikability, Nic was a wonderful main character who was unafraid to call out and to challenge sexism, racism, and the resulting microaggresion. I really admired how the conversation regarding these social issues was handled.
By the end of the day, this verse novel is teeming with untapped potential and I still enjoyed reading it, despite its numerous flaws – largely its lackluster execution and format. Ultimately, 500 Words or Less delivers a story about identity and loneliness that most people can easily relate to, while igniting necessary conversations on systemic issues that the less privileged, particularly people of color, are forced to endure.
Disclosure: I am participating in a blog tour organized by Rich in Variety Tours, which is why I received a review copy of 500 Words or Less. This neither affects my opinion nor the content of my review.
Expand for possible triggers and content warnings.
Death; infidelity; slut-shaming; parental abandonment; microaggression (challenged).
Excerpt from the book:
When Bryant Barnett wore
A #BlackLivesMatter shirt
after another police shooting last fall,
it made the school
as if to remind us
that he is more than
a football star,
more than a golden boy,
more than a pawn
in our town’s obsession
as if to remind us
that Bryant Barnett is black.
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✨ Are you planning to read 500 Words or Less any time soon? Or have you already read it?
✨ Have you read verse novels before? If not, are you interested in giving them a try?
✨ As I’ve mentioned in my review, I have a lot of mixed feelings about 500 Words or Less. What’s a book you’ve felt extremely conflicted about?
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