The Duke of Bannerman Prep

The Duke of Bannerman Prep

Book - 2017
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This contemporary retelling of the The Great Gatsby follows Tanner McKay, a star on his public high school's debating team as he ambitiously pursues and wins a scholarship at the elite Bannerman Prep. Debate is Tanner's ticket out of a life of poverty and family drama, and into a new and better future. But when he's paired with the prep school playboy everyone calls the Duke, Tanner's plans seem doomed to fail. As he gets sucked into the Duke's flashy world, the thrill of the high life and the adrenaline of the edge become addictive. Duke's castle is built on shady, shaky secrets, and the walls are about to topple.
Publisher: New York : Sky Pony Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781510710405
151071040X
Characteristics: 311 p. ; 22 cm

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airyen
Mar 24, 2019

This book is styled as a retelling of the Great Gatsby set in the hypercompetitive world of high school policy debate at the fictional prestigious Northern California boarding school Bannerman Prep. Winning the state championship in policy debate last year allowed self-labelled white trash Tanner McKay, the story’s “Nick,” to being recruited by Bannerman. He’s hoping that success on Bannerman’s debate team can get him a scholarship to Stanford and a ticket out of his family’s poverty. When he gets to Bannerman, though, he finds out he’ll be partnered with the Duke: a mysterious playboy who seems to do none of his debate research, choosing instead to break rules and throw parties. Tanner must navigate his relationship with his family, his debate partnership with the Duke, the hyper-privileged world of Bannerman, and the mysterious identity of the Duke. Will he fit in? And will he be sucked into the Duke’s schemes or achieve Stanford-level success on his own terms?

I love the idea of modern retellings of classics in general. The author (a former high school English teacher) says that one thing she’s noticed teaching The Great Gatsby is that some students struggle to understand the difference between the old-money and new-money, and she says she wrote The Duke of Bannerman Prep to translate that class divide to the idea of private schools and privilege based on college admissions.

I initially picked up this book because I love The Great Gatsby, and I’m a high school policy debater myself. However, I found myself disappointed by the end of the book. The first half of the book has a ton of exposition, since policy debate has its own culture and weird jargon. But even with all the time spent explaining it, the book’s depiction of debate was immersion-breakingly inaccurate to me. For example, one of the big plot points of the book is cheating -- the Duke doesn’t do his own research and borrows from other teams instead. However, a huge part of policy debate culture is the idea of open source evidence, in which all teams share their evidence cites online as a way to promote transparency and better research for everyone. It’s only in the second half of the book that the Gatsby-esque plot picks up (after all the exposition).

Another disappointment: the 1920s misogyny didn’t translate well to modern day. In other modern retellings of classics I’ve read, one way to circumvent misogynistic tropes is genderswapping characters, but Nelson keeps all of that in place, leading to a lot of female characters with very little agency and a lot of male characters who seem to be only defined as playboys.

The cover is pretty generic but aesthetically pleasing. The building depicted is probably part of Bannerman Prep’s super-fancy campus, looking out over the San Francisco Bay. It doesn’t tell you that much about the contents beyond that the genre is realistic, which was disappointing to me -- even though I didn’t end up liking the book, I would definitely have read it a lot sooner if someone had more clearly pitched it as “The Great Gatsby, but make everyone high school debaters in modern-day Northern California.”

⅗ stars -- if you’re a huge fan of Gatsby, I’d recommend, but it doesn’t work great as a stand-alone or as a book about debate itself.

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