Riley Redgate’s Final Draft is not your typical contemporary novel about an aspiring writer. Laila Piedra is a half-white, half-Ecuadorian girl from New York who loves writing science fiction. With the help of her high school teacher, Mr. Madison, she workshops her stories—though we get the sense from the start that she’s her own worst critic. This book doesn’t settle for the usual tropes about high school hierarchies. Laila, a senior is more than an art kid, and though her crew of loyal friends roll in different circles, they bond over their love of the same science fiction TV show. But life as Laila knows it changes when Mr. Madison is involved in a severe car accident and replaced on the faculty by famous author Nadiya Nazarenko.
Nazarenko doesn’t seem to like children—but may one day want to write about them. Her presence as a mentor changes the way Laila sees herself and her work: the effects of Mr. Madison’s encouragement fade, replaced by Nazarenko’s cold sarcasm and dangerous influence, masquerading as tough love. Laila doesn’t drink or smoke, and leaves the daring acts to her fictional characters. But after Nazarenko tells her, “This piece…is a portrait of war and risk drawn by a person who has clearly never seen the face of either,” she begins her journey of exploration. It starts off slowly, with a party and a first drink. But the more Narazenko pushes her, the more Laila seeks out thrills and puts herself in harm’s way, all while pushing her best friends away to focus on her writing.
The question posed by Final Draft is this: How far does one go for the sake of art? For Laila it’s a twin journey toward self-discovery and depression. Media often romanticizes an artist’s mental health, as if endangering it is part of the package. But Redgate delves deeper into the motivations behind Laila’s pursuit of the perfect story, her mentor’s approval, and a sense of self she can’t quite find.
Pushed to the point of no return, Laila finds herself in the darkest of places and must find a way out. Writers of all ages will be able to relate to her journey.
Lygia Day Peñaflor’s sophomore novel, All of this is True, also deals with the culture of fandom, celebrity, and a harmful mentor.
Miri Tran is a huge fan of Fatima Ro’s debut novel, Undertow. Along with her friends Soleil and Penny, the trio of popular Long Island girls sees their wildest dream come true: attending a book event leads to a fast-forming friendship with the author. But it’s the kind of friendship that raises eyebrows: why is the 22-year-old debut novelist spending time with a bunch of high school seniors? And why were they the ones chosen out of all of her fans?
It may have something to do with Jonah Nicholls, the cute, quiet, mysterious new boy, who joins their little group as Soleil’s boyfriend. Told in a series of emails, texts, interview transcripts, and fictitious excerpts from Ro’s second novel, the publication of which had dark consequences, Peñaflor’s own sophomore novel makes an unreliable narrator out of all of its characters.
At the novel’s start, the reader understands the following things: Miri and her friends were a unit since seventh grade, but are now fractured. Jonah is in a coma, and everyone seems to blame someone else. Fatima Ro, the glamorous young author, wrote a novel about the friends that exposed a shameful secret—and that secret that landed Jonah in the hospital. The line between fact and fiction is not simply blurred, it’s completely erased.
TV reporter Nelson Anthony interviews Miri and Penny, while Soleil has sold her emails and texts with Ro to New York Magazine. One of the narrative’s most striking elements is the motivations given to each girl. Miri’s love and devotion for her favorite YA author is unshakable, even in the face of proof that Ro isn’t what she appears to be. Penny is a rich Long Island girl who wants to be more—smarter, classier, needed. Soleil is the artist with aspirations of becoming a writer. And Jonah? He wants forgiveness for a past he can’t escape from.
Interviewer Nelson Anthony tries to pull truth from the girls, but each one has her own version to tell. The only person that remains a mystery is Fatima Ro herself—unreachable and unattainable. It’s important to look at the author for a moment: a young woman with a semi-autobiographical bestselling novel about reconciliation with her dying mother. While Miri is obsessed with Fatima as a celebrity, Soleil turns to the author for dating advice, and Penny is in charge of feeding the cat. Jonah serves merely as inspiration.
Did Ro have the right to tell the personal story of these teens and then walk away? Did she take ownership of their stories simply by welcoming them into her home? The answer is for the reader to decide. Peñaflor has created a novel in which everyone is the hero and villain of their own narrative. “Everybody uses everybody,” Miri says, evoking the idea that when it comes to art, relationships are not symbiotic but parasitic.
In the end, what is the truth? You’ll think on these characters and their twisted, semi-scripted lives long after you’ve finished reading.