After she’s caught escaping her harsh boarding school, Avery reluctantly enters the competition devised by her imperious grandmother to determine who among the mostly despicable VanDemere clan will inherit the family business and fortune.
Each timed challenge (the competition’s more reality TV than The Westing Game) is crafted around character traits Mrs. VanDemere admires: intellect, fortitude, resourcefulness, unity, commitment, courage and integrity (but not mercy, compassion or forgiveness, Avery notices). Travel and genealogical research (ancestors include a Scottish lord, two Pilgrims, and veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil wars) are required. Unless expressly prohibited in the rules, unethical behavior is allowed. To secure Avery’s participation, the family lawyer, whose gorgeous son Avery selects as her helper, reveals that contrary to what she’s been told, her Croatian mother’s alive; with each stage Avery completes, he’ll release one of her mother’s letters. Abandoned by her father, bullied by cousins and uncles, Avery now discovers her grandmother’s cruelty to her mother. Though the novel is entertaining, with two incompatible storylines, it never quite coheres. The high-concept plot is the more successful—watching the avaricious, sneaky, squabbling VanDemere clan compete and cheat is a hoot—but juxtaposed against Avery’s efforts to reconstruct the somber past and reconnect with her mother, it seems trivial and Avery’s willing participation, questionable.
Recommended for reality TV fans and genealogy buffs. (Thriller. 12-15)