Winner Take All by Laurie Devore

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Winner Take All by Laurie DevoreWinner Take All by Laurie Devore
Published by Imprint on January 30, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 330
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley
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For Nell Becker, life is a competition she needs to win.
For Jackson Hart, everyone is a pawn in his own game.
They both have everything to lose.

Nell wants to succeed at everything—school, sports, life. And victory is sweeter when it means beating Jackson Hart, the rich, privileged, undisputed king of Cedar Woods Prep Academy. Yet no matter how hard she tries, Jackson is somehow one step ahead. They’re a match made in hell, but opposites do attract.

Drawn to each other by their rivalry, Nell and Jackson fall into a whirlwind romance that consumes everything in their lives. But when a devastating secret exposes their relationship as just another game, how far will Nell go to win?

Visceral and whip-smart, Laurie Devore’s Winner Take All paints an unflinching portrait of obsessive love, toxic competition, and the drive for perfection.

Winner Take All came out over a year ago, so you can tell I’m super on top of this whole book reviewing business. Based on the average rating, this book has been very divisive, which I’m not one iota surprised about. Winner Take All is somewhat difficult to describe because, if someone had described the plot to me, I would not have read it, and I would have missed out. The best description I can render is that it feels like Jessica Darling meets One Tree Hill, which wasn’t something I would have ever thought I needed until I read Winner Take All. It’s sharp, incisive, painful and somehow also shippy through all of that.

Winner Take All skews way darker and more melodramatic than my reading tastes do. People’s lives are difficult for a lot of complicated, realistic reasons that can feel very manufactured and over-the-top when used in a fictional narrative. I prefer my contemporary novels as fluffy as marshmallow and shippy as hell. Winner Take All delivered on the ship, though it’s admittedly a bit of a ship of pain but god am I on board, but it’s not fluffy at all. AT ALL. The cutesy cover is a lie, though it’s also perfect.

The reason I loved this book that, on paper, is absolutely not a Christina book is Nell’s narrative voice. Her voice is witty, dark, judgmental, and sarcastic. Nell’s harsh on everyone around her and on herself. She’s very self-involved, but also determined and smart as hell. I fell in love with her voice instantly and with her. She’s a big part of why this book will likely be one that you love or you hate. Nell very much falls into the category of an unlikable MC, and some people will not be able to deal with that. Obviously, I loved her, flawed as she is, and I love that by the end she didn’t completely change. She’ll always be a bit irascible, just a bit less self-involved and a bit kinder (especially to herself).

When the book begins, Nell seems driven by her competition with Jackson Hart, a handsome, wealthy, popular boy who, seemingly without effort, sits just a percentage point or two below her in the class rankings. Since Nell’s only attending this private high school because her mom’s the headmaster, she has to do better than everyone else to have a chance at the same opportunities. Jackson infuriates her because it’s all so easy for him; he maintains the grades while being loved by all and having a massive social life. It doesn’t help that Jackson enjoys taunting her into arguments in class, like about the Scarlet Letter.

The trope of a the hero and heroine competing is such shippy catnip. Their whole vibe at the beginning of the book, full of cutting, clever banter, is very “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” and ohhhhh I loved it. Nell and Jackson end up becoming more and more obsessed with each other, forming a relationship of sorts. They understand one another on a deep level, but both of them have massive trust issues and Nell has her deep-seated need to win at all things. Their relationship is deeply unhealthy not so much because they are incompatible by nature but because they both need to work through a bunch of shit. Their connection reminded me so heavily of Jessica Darling and Marcus Flutie, just saying.

Underneath the catnip romance, the real motivator for both Nell and Jackson is the constant search for approval from withholding parents. They’re both driven to excel to prove something to a parent. What’s really cool about Devore’s depiction of toxic parental relationship is that Nell aspires to be like her mother, who she has always thought perfect, and Jackson despises his asshole father. Despite the difference in their base feeling, the end results are fairly similar, and it’s both fascinating and heart-wrenching.

The plot absolutely veers into melodrama. You could take the various plot points and fit them into One Tree Hill without much difficulty. While one particular plot point (View Spoiler ») wasn’t my personal favorite, I did think that everything in the plot worked in the context of these teens and their emotional journey. Nell’s so driven to win that she will sacrifice her own happiness or reputation or anything to feel that she has come out victorious. It’s awful sometimes, but it’s something she absolutely would do. The ending doesn’t wrap things up in a neat bow, but it leaves a little bit of hope that Nell and Jackson will be able to work through their issues.

Winner Take All took me by surprise. If you love the snarky judgment of Jessica Darling, you absolutely should not skip this book.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

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