Siobhan Vivian is a longtime favorite author of mine. She’s a fierce champion of teenage girls, she’s effortlessly cool, and oh, right, she’s BFFs with Jenny Han. When Vivian released Stay Sweet in 2018, an ice-cream-cone sweet love letter to the power of female friendships, it was obvious that she was only getting better and better with each book. Now Vivian has returned with We Are the Wildcats, another testament to the power of teenage girls and the bonds between them, but with a fierce, cutthroat edge that makes it an absolute page-turner. Get ready for the Wildcats!
The Wildcats are West Essex High School’s varsity field hockey team… and they kick ass. Or at least, they did until last year, when one of their top players, Phoebe, tore her ACL (that’s sport speak for BAD NEWS) and the rhythm of the once-synchronized team was thrown off. For the first time since their powerhouse Coach arrived at West Essex, the Wildcats lost a championship game. Now, with the new varsity team assembled, the girls are ready to regain their title as the best team around, push themselves to their limits, and prove to Coach that they are worthy of being called Wildcats. Repairing their friendships, finding their rhythm, and welcoming the new girls the right way all hinge on tonight’s team sleepover before their first game of the season. Writing from six different perspectives and covering a span of twenty-four hours, Siobhan Vivian explores what happens when a toxic coach pushes strong, brave teenage girls to the brink… and how they take their team back.
Our main characters, Mel, Phoebe, Ali, Grace, Luci, and Kearson, have all come to the Wildcats with different backgrounds and goals. Mel is team captain, and though she already has a full ride to her first choice of colleges, she is emotionally dependent on Coach’s view of her and desperate to make this year her best yet. Phoebe, still suffering from some pain in her knee, secretly knows she might not play for much longer, but she wants to prove to herself and everyone else that she is resilient and powerful. Ali, the team’s goalie, has given up a lot for the Wildcats, but none of that mattered when she let two goals slip by her last year. She has held the reason for her slip-ups close to her heart all summer, but with the first game approaching, she may have to come clean to her team. Grace is a newbie—and a surprising one at that. A bit more punk-rock than prep, she is an unusual but welcome addition to the team, even if her Wildcat-blue hair is a bit shocking. Luci is a freshman, and one of the few diverse girls in her school and on the team. Still, Coach says he sees something in her, and that’s enough to make her feel like part of the team, or is it? And last of all is Kearson, a semi-new player who filled in for Phoebe when she was injured last year. Whether she had performance anxiety or simply wasn’t ready, Kearson bombed her games and saw a dark side of Coach. She’s not sure she has what it takes to be a Wildcat, but she wants to mend fences between her and the team she let down. And leading them all is Coach…
Young, handsome, and sporting a full head of blond curls, Coach is not your average high school teacher or coach. He’s unavoidably attractive and his ambition and drive for the team only makes the girls—and their parents, classmates, and administrators—even more willing to fall under his spell. But Coach has a dark side, too. He trains the girls relentlessly, yelling, screaming, and cursing at them one minute and praising them the next, but his jabs are just a bit too personal and his kindnesses too flimsy. Older readers will recognize the abuse patterns Coach pushes onto his team pretty easily, but the girls are unable to deny his charisma and magnetism. Mel especially seems to have a special connection to Coach. But are his late night texts and phone calls really just innocent acts of friendship between two passionate athletes or are they something more? Playing on each of the girls’ weaknesses and dreams, Coach not only makes them doubt themselves and their talents, but the talents their teammates bring to the field, as well. But with the girls on edge on the night before their first game and Coach pulling the strings behind the scenes, his devious manipulations start to come to light.
Alternating between the night before the first game and the girls’ flashbacks of what happened to each of them since the last game, Vivian’s plot unfolds to prove that first of all, Coach isn’t what he seems, and second, that the girls don’t need him anyway. The power of We Are the Wildcats exists in its championing of teenage girls and their talents and strengths and in the slow, insidious ways that Coach is revealed to be much more toxic and predatory than anyone could have guessed. Most impressive in this book is the girls and their constant uplifting of one another; their kindness and loyalty are endless and, even when pushed against Coach’s manipulations, they always manage to find and support one another. Laid against the already brutal scenes of high school social life and sports, the Wildcats’ friendships are a shining light of hope, acceptance, and love. There is no girl-hating-girl or subtle bullying between the girls, which makes Coach’s meddling stand out even more.
I’ve read three of Vivian’s books now and the plots were all wildly different, so disparate that it seems impossible that they could have all come from the same author. So what is it that pulls me to Vivian’s books again and again? Her pitch-perfect dialogue and character developments. Vivian’s teenagers are neither effortlessly witty nor tied down to trendy slang terms and euphemisms in a way that will quickly make them seem out-of-date; instead, they talk like you and me and every normal teenager we know: they squabble, they tease, they say “whatever,” and they even curse occasionally. Vivian is one of those rare writers whose characters speak so naturally that you feel as though you could have a conversation with them yourself, and believe me, I would love to speak to any of the Wildcats.
I’m a big fan of multi-POVs, and I have to say that Vivian nails it in this book. Six characters are a lot to keep track of, but Vivian quickly distinguishes her characters and their vastly different upbringings, backgrounds, and personalities. Because We Are the Wildcats takes place in only twenty-four hours, the plot moves fast, but the girls’ different perspectives add some much-needed exposition and help to flesh out some of the faster-moving scenes. If there are any flaws to this setup, it is only that I wanted more. Because the book unfolds so quickly, we rarely get to see the side of Coach that the girls have loved for so long; we only have their admiration and devotion to him to go on, and because of that, the plot relied on “telling, not showing” at times. Similarly, the ending was so abrupt that I thought I missed some pages, and though it was had a heavy impact, I did not feel as though Coach got the punishment he deserved, or that the girls got the full redemptive arc that the plot seemed to be building toward throughout the book. Unfortunately, for a book about a predatory man, We Are the Wildcats lacked the “teaching moment” that could help readers in similar situations find help, especially as not all readers will have a team like the Wildcats to believe and protect them. These issues aside, We Are the Wildcats is another terrific release from an author who is not afraid to try new things and push herself to the limits with every book (Vivian, like her characters, is a definite Wildcat).
Disclaimer/Trigger Warning: Coach is a toxic character at best and predatory at worst. Though there is no sexual material in this book, Coach’s motives, especially with Mel, are hinted at, and his behavior borders on grooming. Some of the language he uses with the girls may be triggering for readers (cursing, insulting, manipulating, etc.).