Book Review: 500 Words or Less

Juleah Del Rosario, 500 Words or Less
Simon & Schuster: Simon Pulse 2018
384 pages, hardback, $19.00

LIKE NIC CHEN, I only have 500 words or less to convince you why you should read the novel 500 Words or Less. This seemingly difficult task is one that the narrator, Nic, perfects over the course of Juleah Del Rosario’s debut coming of age novel that explores the unavoidably stressful hurdle of first semester of senior: college applications. For Nic, high school is full of students whose biggest concern is whether they receive either the infamous “I regret to inform you…” or “I am pleased to inform you…” letters from their top choice Ivy League school. And while for most students, the stress that accompanies writing college essays is enough to spark countless mental breakdowns, for Nic writing others’ college essays on top of her own is her escape.

But Del Rosario makes Nic’s unusual desire to dig deep into the utmost personal aspects of her peer’s lives not as odd as it seems. Following the trauma of being abandoned by her alcoholic mom and labeled as the school “whore” for cheating on her loved-by-everyone boyfriend one drunken night, Nic would do anything to escape her own chaotic life. Nic carries this attitude into her senior year by emphasizing that her “life was more than a series of letters scrawled on a locker, vying to break me.” Like this snippet, the novel emphasizes that there is much beyond what is just written on the pages. Although the premise of 500 Words or Less may seem predictable, it takes these stereotypical teenage issues and depicts them in a way that launches the reader into their own self exploratory thoughts.

Uncommon for such young adult novels, 500 Words or Less is written in verse, a series of poems that narrate the story. Each of these poems only span roughly two or three pages. Through interviews, Del Rosario has elaborated that she takes on this stylistic challenge in order to reflect much of what she writes within the novel. The, at times, vague verse enables the reader to interpret meanings of the phrases in a more personal way rather than having a set perspective given by the author. The novel’s unique style sets it apart from others that share similar topics, making it worth the read.

Through the novel’s verse, Del Rosario wrestles with many issues that her teen aged audience most likely is facing: heartbreak, forgiveness, academic stress, death, and self-discovery. While many other novels within the young adult category cover these topics, Del Rosario sets her novel apart by adding a dramatic twist through her short, punchy verse that’s simple to comprehend but also makes the novel more relatable to many people’s own high school experiences.

Choosing 500 Words or Less as your next read certainly won’t disappoint. Readers not only get to experience a slice of Nic’s grueling experiences but also get to wonder what if I were in her situation. The novel forces readers to do their own self exploring alongside Nic, which lends for many interesting interpretations. This not too heavy of a read definitely will provide you with the kind of escape you want from any book along with instilling you with its underlying, thought provoking message of self-discovery and the mistakes you make along the way.  

−Stephanie Hull ‘19