The Taker by J.M. Steele is a YA novel that grabbed me from the first line, if line is the right word, and didn't let go. I quote:
If Carly were to ___ the SAT, she would be ___ for life.
(a) ace . . . set
(b) miss . . . humiliated
(c) fail . . . home
(d) eat . . . sick
(e) blow . . . screwed
That's the book in microcosm -- it's about the pressure of the SAT, and more generally about the price we pay to hurdle the milestone events society says we must hurdle.
Carly's a golden girl. She's a wonderful student, the girlfriend of the hot captain of the lacrosse team, and she's headed for Princeton, of which her daddy is a graduate. Not that she doesn't want to go to Princeton. She's a writer, she wants to study with Toni Morrison, and if she doesn't study with Toni Morrison, she'll "end up being one of those hack writers who spits out obituaries for some jerkwater newspaper." She's not much for tests, and this is Princeton she's talking about, but with normal SAT prep she should be okay, right? Wrong. The answer is (e).
Or, at least (e), part 1. Someone wants to make sure part 2 doesn't happen. That someone texts her only moments after she accesses her scores by phone, saying "I can help you" and signing himself "The Taker." The Taker is a legendary (supposedly) person who will take your SAT for you and get you a top score. For a price, of course.
Okay, here's where the SPOILERS are likely to kick in. For the next eight weeks, Carly lives, breathes, eats, and dreams the SAT. After Carly's dad puts the kibosh on studying with boyfriend Brad when he discovers them in a lip-lock, she receives not just a text, but a phone call, from The Taker. It's all very simple, he says. He takes the SAT for her and guarantees a score of at least 2250 (out of 2400). Then, she owes him whatever he asks, or he'll expose her as a cheater. "Whatever he asks" is way too much to contemplate, so the next plan is to get into an after-school SAT study group. But Carly needs her score raised by more than the measly hundred-point average, and there's no guarantee there'll be room in the class. Carly caves. She makes the deal with The Taker.
One of The Taker's rules is that she must continue to study, so her improvement doesn't look suspicious. This leads to a tutoring arrangement with school nerd and neighbor guy Ronald Gross. But about those improvements not looking suspicious? Too late. Carly's best friend Jen, an aspiring journalist, is on a hot story: In too many cases over the last few years, repeat SAT scores in certain school districts have risen by 300 points or more, far above the typical 50-point difference. "It's a statistical anomaly," Jen says. With hopes of breaking a story that will get her into a prestigious summer journalism school, she's out to discover who's cheating, and how.
The plot moves at a great pace, and the author did a fine job of keeping me guessing about the ID of The Taker. But the best thing in this book is the characters, especially the secondary ones. Ronald is so much more than a nerd, and Brad, the boyfriend, is rather shallow yet surprised me with a display of integrity near the end. My favorite twist comes when Carly discovers who The Taker is, what his game really is, what really happened when she took her second SAT, and is horribly disappointed that this person would deceive her -- until she realizes that she is as big a cheat and had been hoping for understanding from him. That this all works out happily is a credit to the author's skill, and an extension of great grace to "regular people" who never intend to sell out to what the world says is important, and then do.