Chelsea High by Jenny Oliver

The Blurb On The Back:

Do you belong?

Norah Whittaker has grown up on a houseboat, spending lazy days swimming in the river and helping on her mum’s vintage market stall.  But when her chaotic dad’s latest get-rich-quick plan ends up getting him arrested, everything changes.

Grandparents (incredibly rich ones) that Norah never knew existed enrol her at exclusive Chelsea High.  There are polo lessons, ski trips and parties photographed by glossy magazines.  Norah has never felt so out of place.  And everyone else there thinks so, too.

That is, until she’s cast opposite Ezra Montgomery in the school play.  Suddenly Norah discovers a reason to belong, after all …

You can order Chelsea High by Jenny Oliver from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Teenager Norah Whittaker lives an idyllic, bohemian life on a houseboat moored near Mulberry Island with her parents.  Her mum Lois runs a vintage clothing stall at Portabello Market while her dad Bill is an actor who never got his big break but who has been an enthusiastic member of the Mulberry Island community and who recently turned to film investment, persuading the Island’s other residents to put their savings into a series of movies – one of which Norah (who wants to act professionally) starred in and which was commercially released.

Then it emerges that Bill’s investment partners were running a Ponzi (or pyramid) scheme and all of the residents’ money has gone.  Worse, Norah’s father is accused of having been in on the scam and is arrested and put on trial.  With the Mulberry Island residents turning against them (even Norah’s friends abuse her on social media, leading her mum to confiscate her phone so she can’t see it), the family have to move away from the Island.  

Adding to the shock, Norah discovers that her parents actually come from incredibly wealthy backgrounds and the grandparents she thought were dead are actually still alive!  Bill’s dad is the Earl of Wesley and he and his wife own a house round the corner from Harrods and a country estate while Lois’s mum is a wealthy divorcee who flits from luxury yacht to luxury yacht in the Mediterranean.  Bill’s mum and dad agree to help pay for his lawyers but in return, Norah, Bill and Lois have to move their boat to Battersea, Norah has to enrol in Chelsea High (a luxury secondary school in Chelsea that educates the sons and daughters of the great and the good) and they want to get to know their granddaughter.

Norah feels like a fish out of water among the other students at Chelsea High – students like Coco Summers (a social influencer with other 2 million followers and many product sponsors) and Daniel Rhys (whose mother is the famous actor Helena Rhys, his father a successful art dealer and who runs his own successful import/export business from his bedroom) – and who play polo and attend glamorous parties.  When the school decides to do a performance of the musical GREASE Norah finally sees a chance to participate and maybe even shine, only to discover that she’s pitted herself against Coco who is desperate for the lead role of Sandy and will do anything to secure it.  Still, there are positives of getting the role – such as the fact that the enigmatic Ezra Montgomery who has been cast as Danny and who seems to possibly be interested in Norah …

Jenny Oliver’s YA romance set in the privileged world of the rich and powerful uses its fish-out-of-water main character to make some smart observations about the downsides of wealth while also playing with some of the typical YA romance tropes.  It’s not without some cliches though and as the first in a series there’s a lot of set up but if you’re looking for YA romance that’s not just privilege porn, then this is definitely worth a look.

I’m not normally one for YA romance (no shade intended, just not my genre) and I’m also not normally one for books set among the wealthy and powerful (mainly because I think many of them teeter into cliched privilege porn that show it as the be-all-and-end-all).  However, I had seen a number of other book bloggers say favourable things about Jenny Oliver’s romance books for ‘adults’ and so I was interested to see what she did with her first YA romance.

Oliver does use many of the traditional YA romance tropes – Norah is a fish-out-of-water who is having to deal with losing contact with her friends and life that she enjoyed and is plunged into dealing with grandparents she never knew existed and a world of rich – and in some cases, incredibly bratty teenagers – who operate under a set pecking order.  Similarly, Coco is a bit of a stereotypical antagonist (rich and privileged and determined to crush anyone who could rival her) while I found Ezra a bit of a stereotypical teenage boy with a secret who doesn’t really like his friends but can’t break away from them (although I did admire the secret that Oliver gives him).

However Oliver also subverts many of those cliches.  For example, Norah is, for obvious reasons, upset about everything she has lost and seeks to confide in her best friend Jess but Oliver has a great scene where Jess points out that her family has lost out due to the scam and yet Norah never bothers to ask how she is doing.  Also good is how Oliver deals with the trial storyline, which did not unfold in the way I had been expecting, which is refreshing and sets up interesting potential for the future books in this series.  One of my favourite scenes in the book though is when Norah re-considers and evaluates her parents now she knows about their real backgrounds and wonders to what extent their bohemian lifestyle was an indulgence that they could practice because they knew they had a safety net but a close second is a scene between Norah and her grandfather where they talk about her father and his character in a way that felt very true.

The romance itself is fine.  I liked the fact that while there is an insta-attraction element, Norah isn’t completely blind to Ezra’s less pleasant traits and there’s a good scene towards the end when she points that out.  I think Ezra has an interesting backstory, which gives him a lot more emotional depth and a good reason for his angsty behaviour than other male MCs in this genre.  The potential rivalry between Norah and Coco left me a little cold because it’s such a trope but Oliver’s a clever enough writer that I don’t doubt she’ll do something with this that defies expectations.

Because this is the first in a series, it has to do a lot of work and I found the large cast of supporting characters a little confusing at times as I got some of the female characters confused with each other (particularly Tabitha, Verity and Emmeline who I thought were pretty interchangeable).  I was also a bit surprised by the fact that Coco was so determined to get the part of Sandy when everyone knows that it’s Rizzo who is the most interesting role and the chance to really stand out given how bland Sandy is (but that’s just me) and although I thought Oliver was smart in how she played that storyline out, I can’t say I quite believed in the resolution to it as it was slightly too contrived.  The Mr Watts storyline also didn’t ring true to me – not only because it had shades of Snape but also because given how rich Norah’s grandparents are and how easy it would be for Norah to make a complaint about his blatant bullying, you’d think he’d be more careful.

These criticisms aside, I thought this was a strongly written book that’s got a lot for YA romance fans but also something for people who would not normally read this genre.  All in all, I was interested in Norah and her family enough to want to read more of her experiences and I would definitely check out the sequel. 

CHELSEA HIGH was released in the United Kingdom on 6th August 2020.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

3 thoughts on “Chelsea High by Jenny Oliver

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