Elliot Allagash

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Elliot Allagash By Simon Rich, book reviewSeymour is the least popular kid at Glendale school, a Manhattan fee-paying school that’s “small and getting smaller every year”. It’s a shame he’s not doing better because his parents can’t really afford the fees to send him there and he suspects they might have worked out that 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 pretty cool 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 by Lance, the top dog in the school’s basketball team. 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. Elliot Allagash is wealthy beyond the imagination of most of us mere mortals and Elliot has his eye on Seymour.

Elliot has been expelled from every school he’s ever been to but his father has donated so much money to Glendale that there’s no way he can get expelled no matter what he does or how hard he tries. With great wealth comes great ennui and Elliot has immense depths of devious intelligence. He needs stimulation, he needs a project and like Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, he spots a loser in Seymour and decides to make him the subject of his challenge. Elliot’s mission is to make Seymour his Eliza Doolittle and turn him into the most popular boy. He tells Seymour that all he has to do is “exactly what I tell you”.

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 gets James to set up an entire basketball league just so Seymour has other kids to scrimmage with. He 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 as Elliot sets up complex and finely detailed revenges. In one example he sends a newly released convicted Nazi to a restaurant, passing him off as a restaurant reviewer and placing several members of the city’s press in the restaurant to report on the fawning attentions shown to this evil outcast. Why? Because the restaurant had refused to serve Seymour a burger just a few days earlier.

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 like Frankenstein’s monster taking on an identity his maker never intended.

“I enjoyed the book very much but treated it as the fairy tale that I think it’s intended to be.”

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 devious 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 a 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’ll be getting asked for ID in bars for a very long time. 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.

Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich
224 pages, Published by Profile Books (Aug 2010)
Thanks to Profile Books for providing a free review copy of the book.

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Elliot Allagash
by Simon Rich

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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