As manipulative as Cruel Intentions, as competitive as Election, as geeky as Napoleon Dynamite, Elliot Allagash reminds you what your teens were like, and why growing up is so hard to do!
Simon Rich writes for the popular TV sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, where his sketches have starred celebrities from Justin Timberlake to Anne Hathaway. He is also a screenwriter as well as the author of two humour collections, Free Range Chickens and Ant Farm (the latter was nominated for the prestigious 2008 Thurber Prize). His work has often appeared in The New Yorker and his short story Strong and Mighty Men won the Harvard short story prize. He graduated from Harvard University, where he was president of The Harvard Lampoon. Rich is 25 years old and Elliot Allagash is his first novel.
Elliot Allagash is a hilarious and witty book, filled with clever twists that took me on a thrilling journey. The characters are utterly convincing and their actions make them all the more interesting. Set in a second-rate high school in Manhattan, the events that unfold are on a much larger scale than your typical high school dramas. As an unlikely friendship evolves between a school loser and an incredibly wealthy master of manipulation, they turn the world around them with a series of daring schemes.
This novel is one of those books that made me lose all track of time. I couldn’t stand taking my eyes from the page and long after the end, I kept thinking about it. The writer questions people’s perceptions of success and the plot shows how greed can mix up one’s morals. Perhaps one of my favourite themes in this book is the power one friend can have over someone and changing them for the better or the worse. Every character in this novel has their own stories to tell as they struggle through their problems. Their developments are often surprising as they react to different obstacles, especially when I thought someone had changed horridly, but had actually made the best decision. This novel shows the flip-side to every situation. It toys with your mind, just as it toys with its characters whilst keeping in the high school setting. The ending was superbly constructed, as was the entire novel. The author has exercised a vast amount of skill and craft to write such an intelligent novel. I highly recommend this book to anyone out there who is looking for an entertaining and thought-provoking read.
Pip Nioms, Hampton, VIC
This is a fast-moving story and unlike any other I’ve read. It is the story of Seymour, an unpopular student at Glendale in Manhattan. Glendale is not a top-tier school, but everyone in it has more status than Seymour. He’s right at the bottom of the pile and never seems to have any friends. That changes when Elliot arrives at school. Glendale isn’t the type of school Elliot wants to go to, but all of the others have kicked him out. He decides to take on a project – to make Seymour the most popular guy in the school, whether Seymour wants to be or not! Elliot is used to having his own way and his plots are evil and often very cruel. Seymour is overwhelmed by Elliot, but there comes a time when Seymour has to decide whether he is to be a pawn forever.
This is a complicated tale, where the idle rich are pilloried for their manipulations, jealousies and beliefs. Elliot is convinced he is always right, and that his wealth proves his superiority and makes those around him inferior and therefore his to play with as he wishes. The novel is extremely cynical, and the tone is quite dark. Normal high school cruelties and embarrassments are taken to the extreme. Elliot is a villain who thinks he’s a hero, and all the school stereotypes are represented. Centred in Manhattan, it would require some background to be built up with students about the type of people being lampooned by the novel.
Using this novel effectively in the classroom would require a sophisticated audience. Ideas of morality and the power of money could be explored through the text, as could the influence of stereotypes on peoples’ perceptions. The story is completely improbable, and requires readers to suspend their disbelief, for it is extreme satire. There is a great deal to explore in the nature of friendship, for Elliot keeps telling Seymour he is a pawn, but he genuinely wants his friendship and doesn’t know how to get it. The importance of family is a key theme as well, with the contrast between Seymour’s hardworking, caring parents with Elliot’s father who only provides material comfort and is no role model for his lonely son, being poignant and pronounced. Finally, the cost and importance of popularity is a key concept that is explored. There is a lot in this text for students, providing they have the background and sophistication to recognise the stereotypes and the satire.
Anne Sim, Dromana Secondary College, Mornington Peninsula, VIC
Elliot Allagash, by American writer Simon Rich, is a clever and humorous story that will be sure to appeal to its teenage audience. Elliot is the son of a multi billionaire, Terry, who has more money than could possibly be imagined. Life is frankly a bore and to kill time Elliot has made a habit of being expelled from a number of schools. His father moves to New York to follow his hat-maker and establishes Elliot at Glendale College, a most uninspiring college but a generous donation to the school ensures his enrolment. In order to add a little excitement to his life, Elliot arrogantly decides to make the least popular boy in the school, Seymour, his personal project and transforms him into the most popular boy in the school. Through cheating, trickery and bribery he achieves his aim until, ugly duckling-like, Seymour is transformed. But of course, this all comes at a cost to Seymour who finally stands up to the manipulative Elliot. Exacting revenge upon Seymour’s ingratitude, Elliot takes all his fame away through a well placed article in the New York Times. Yet, ironically, Seymour has not lost at all as he finds a friend in Ashley and Elliot is left soulless and friendless.
There are shades of My Fair Lady and more recently, Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, as people become pets but eventually bite the hand that feeds them. All of which seems very serious stuff but not so, as Elliot Allagash is a light-hearted, hilarious read that would appeal to students who could identify with Seymour who is essentially a good person.
Sharon Marchingo, Crusoe College, VIC
As a young teen with a limited amount of social skill, it always seems a great opportunity to make friends with someone who has power and influence. These sorts of people can change one’s life for the better. Especially in Junior Secondary College. Especially when parents worry about your school life. Especially when there is a promise of fame and popularity. Well, Seymour, a year 8 students at Glendale Academy, meets such a possibility through another student. His name is Elliot Allagash who happens to be the son of one of the wealthiest families in the whole country. Unfortunately, Elliot has transferred from many Colleges due to his manipulation of people and events and Glendale is a last resort, a cheaper private school who accepts him along with a rather large beneficiary from the family.
As with most adolescent boys, Seymour has eyes for a female student, Jessica. A little out of his league, Jessica prefers the company of Lance, a strapping young teen who has mastered sports of all sorts. Seymour also has the desire to be more popular with other year level students and the opportunity to be a level Class captain arises. Elliot eventually makes contact with Seymour and their characters intertwine quite well. The issue here is that Elliot, with all of his wealth, contacts and manipulative skills, decides to assist Seymour to become the whole school’s most popular and respected person. Seymour accepts the offer a little reluctantly but what the heck! Popularity! Influence! Friends! However, the methods Elliot employs are more out of an ASIO manual than just friendship assistance. In the stages leading up to the major election for year level captains, there are character assassinations, dirt files, rigging of tests, use of the local newspaper and secret meetings. Seymour’s main rival, a young lady named Ashley, is devastated. All of this is to enable Seymour to become more accepted around the college.
The story continues to highlight the power-hungry Elliot and the devious ways he gets his way with all manner of situations. It becomes painfully evident to Seymour that his own character is being sullied with the antics Elliot employs to make him more popular. This continues all through the secondary years at Glendale. The desire for acceptance and leadership in Seymour begins to wane and the chance meeting with Ashley several years after the major year level captain election reinforces his inner concerns. A friendship grows and eventually Seymour is able to sever the links to Elliot.
A chance meeting between Elliot, Ashley and Seymour several months later throws some poignant reflections on the years that Seymour may have thrown away at Glendale. Elliot is still up to his manipulative ways but with another poor character.
Trevor Dangerfield, Elisabeth Murdoch College, Langwarrin, VIC
Elliot Allagash is heir to a fortune so large that nothing is out of his reach; he can have anything he wants, the way he wants it and can make anyone do anything that he wishes. However he cannot buy true friendship, even if he thinks he does. Although this book has been called hilarious by some reviewers I found the character of Elliot to be a very sad and lonely figure. His mother is absent and his relationship with his father is very cold and unfeeling. Although he has everything money can buy there is no-one in his life that shows him any affection. To amuse himself Elliot decides to make Seymour the most popular kid in school, get the most popular girl and get into Harvard University all without really doing anything, like actually studying, helping the community, or charity work. Elliot provides answers to examinations, concocts stories about Seymour being an artistic genius, the secretary of the Anti-Asbestos League and speaking four languages. Seymour goes along with all of this, after all he has been unnoticed all his life and now he is enjoying being popular. He finds out the hard way what happens when you don’t do exactly what Elliot wants, when everything is revealed on live TV. Seymour will survive though he finally realises he has a true friend he likes him the way he is, but Elliot doesn’t learn anything he just goes on to his next project.
Jan O’Sullivan, Library Technician, Mooroolbark, VIC