While I can’t say that “DUFF” is a particularly common expression where I’m from (*see footnote), the concept is certainly familiar. Whether it’s the friend who is perceived as “lesser” in some way, used as a foil to his/her companions, or the practice of exploiting someone’s self-image in order to gain romantic footing with the actual object of desire – it’s a fact that this idea, if not the practice, is perpetuated by a culture obsessed with comparison. For this reason, I applaud Keplinger’s choice to tackle the issue in her debut – not merely the concept of the DUFF as a pawn in a tactical flirting manoeuvre, but by extension, where this label comes from, its emotional repercussions and the destructive nature of assessing one’s worth against other people. The novel’s greatest strength lies in its readability. Aside from a couple of slightly awkward “teen speak” expressions and some wild abandon with dialogue tags, the story is undeniably immersive and the pages turn quickly. While the writing is not technically flawless, and shows that Keplinger will further hone her craft, it does capture high school atmosphere well and makes for brisk reading. Bianca’s unrelenting cynicism – if not always accessible - lends the narrative a distinctive voice and her self-denigration is believable. I recall that around its release, much was made of the fact that The Duff’s plot features plenty of casual sex due to the central character striking up an “enemies with benefits” relationship with the very person who dubbed her ‘the Duff’. Personally, I found Bianca’s particular method of distraction rang quite true, though I know some have taken issue with her choice to have sex with someone she otherwise finds repulsive. Granted, these scenes are uncomfortable to read, as is one when Bianca discusses with Wesley her “unattractiveness” and he does not clarify his view of her. I can’t deny I felt my skin crawl with uneasiness at these moments, not because I thought they were unrealistic, but because they were. However, I’m not sure that all of these scenes were necessary, and to an extent I do feel that The Duff relies on its sexual content a little too much. I'm not opposed to the content at all, but I would have preferred to see some deeper character development, to further complement the scenes of Bianca and Wesley getting it on amid their verbal combat. So while I appreciate Keplinger’s honesty in portraying how the labelling of a person might affect them, I feel that somewhere along the line, the subtext of the book sort of stumbled and fell on its face. Bianca’s realisation that everyone feels like the duff sometimes rang hollow for me. I understood what she was attempting to convey, but frankly I didn’t buy it coming out of the mouths of Casey and Jessica. That their admissions would prove a panacea to Bianca’s self-image seemed a bit of a stretch, honestly, as I think the issue is much more complex and fraught than this. Further, while Keplinger makes some thought-provoking statements about the labels like “slut” and “whore”, I don’t really feel that Bianca and Wesley’s respective labelling of each other was adequately addressed. And as for “man-whore”, “womanizer”, “playboy” – enough already. I get the idea. If The Duff’s potency is in its relevance and very accessible handling of a topical issue, its weaknesses are in the subplots and resolution. Parental absence, alcoholism and divorce are also part of the plot but they feel unrealistically handled and poorly resolved. Keplinger’s attempt to give context to Bianca’s actions with her home life issues was understandable, but not effectively executed. Again, I found myself wishing that Keplinger had dispensed with some of the breadth of the issues she tackles, and really sharpened her focus. The various threads of sub-plot wrap up into far too neat an ending, especially with regard to Toby. All I will say on the handling of that particular element is: NO, just no. It gave this novel a saccharine note it absolutely did not need. Despite my criticisms, I will definitely read Keplinger’s other novels. There’s certainly a place for her questioning and direct voice in YA literature. I find her ideas interesting and think her execution will only strengthen. *I was horrified to realise, and somewhat ashamed to admit (you’ll see why), that when I first saw Kody Keplinger’s novel The Duff appear on the blogosphere quite some time ago, my brain obliging unearthed the first time I ever heard the term. It was uttered by a contestant on a delightful reality TV program that aired back in 2003. One of the charming contestants made this remark: "You ever heard of the DUFF? The Designated Ugly Fat Friend? You gotta be in with the DUFF to be in with the girl." Apparently, my brain filed this pithy quote under: Category: Crap I Shouldn’t Have Wasted My Time OnSubcategory: TV – RealityFile: Quotes by Jerks That May Later Prove UsefulThank you, elephantine memory! (And 10 points and a unicorn to anyone who can name said tragic reality TV program).* * * * * So I've just been on a little "liking" spree of reviews for this book, and I find myself agreeing with both the very positive and very negative takes. Which is probably indicative of my very conflicted feelings about this book. Will attempt a review soon..