This review will probably be longer than the short book itself, but unfortunately the author has inspired me to go off on a diatribe.
Eulberg tries to incorporate some good messages into this novel but I’m not sure she doesn’t undermine herself at most turns. Her biggest messages seem to be:
(1) There is nothing “wrong” with being gay; in fact, there is no reason for gay kids and their romances and romance angstiness to be treated any differently than hetero romance and angst. The author does a great job on this score.
(2) Preoccupation with looks is absurd and does not indicate true worth. Here, I think Eulberg submarines her own case. In the story, Lexi Anderson, 16, has a seven-year-old sister, Mackenzie (“Mac”) who is pretty much a fictional incarnation of Honey Boo Boo (the nickname of seven-year-old child beauty pageant participant Alana Thompson, who appears in a reality tv show along with her family.) Lexi is considered the one with “the great personality” while Mac is “the beauty.” (Lexi explains that “When a guy uses great personality to describe a girl, it’s the polite way of saying fat and ugly.”) Presumably, the author (via Lexi) aims to show us this is not the case. But the way she goes about it actually vitiates her point.
First of all, notice how fat is paired with ugly. Fat is also paired with unpleasantness in general: the mother is not only a horrid, screeching caricature of pageant moms, but is overweight to boot. The obesity helps contribute to her image of being repulsive. Moreover, Lexi frequently makes observations like this one:
“One of the benefits of having a morbidly obese mother is that it has made me overly paranoid about my weight. I stick to mostly non-processed foods, which is basically the opposite of what Mom eats. So I’m not fat and I’m not the most disgusting girl in my class, but I’m nowhere near the prettiest.”
Message: fat equals disgusting.
I’d love to be able to report that Lexi goes on to develop some understanding for her mother, who is divorced, emotionally devastated, financially strapped, and afraid for her future. So okay, she might use food as a way to relax and/or as an antidepressant. How many of us are free enough of those tendencies to throw stones and not exhibit a little compassion? But Lexi’s only epiphany is that you don’t need to look like a full-blown beauty pageant contestant (i.e., tons of hairspray, makeup, provocative clothing, and an anorexic frame) in order to thrive and be happy. But a little bit certainly helps, to Lexi’s mind.
In fact, one of the worst things about the book, to me, is that Lexi turns out, when primped up with makeup and short skirts and tight tees, to be “a hottie” afterall. Thus, she really is a babe, destroying the whole argument that one can simply be a great girl with a great personality and still get the guy or be valuable or whatever other positive message the author would like to convey. What if she weren’t actually a “hottie” in disguise?
This is such a common meme it is almost unrecognizable on a conscious level. But think about The Ugly Duckling. Sure, the duckling got its “revenge” against the bullies when it turned into a beautiful swan, but what about if it just grew up to be an older ugly duck?
And then there’s this most awful bit: When Lexi finally starts dressing for school like a sex kitten, her best friend Cam reports that boys are talking about her:
“Cam sighs. ‘They’re all like…’ Cam makes her voice low, ‘Dude, have you seen Lexi, she’s looking hot, wouldn’t mind getting me a piece of that.’ You know, stupid guy stuff.”
Wait for it:
“‘Really?’ I try to not make it known how happy this makes me.”
Gaaaah! The author never takes this issue on at all (except obliquely in reference to the pageants), i.e., the perception of girls as sex objects and worse yet, girls being HAPPY to be thought of in that way. GAAAAH! How bad is the societal addiction of women to look attractive to men that “finally” being totally objectified makes girls HAPPY? Gaaaaah!
Lexi does manage to have some good insights in spite of these plot elements that negate them. For instance, she comes to understand that:
“…high school is exactly like a beauty pageant. … Instead of a tiara,” she observes, “you’re anointed worthy of a spot at the Beautiful People table [in the cafeteria].”
She also has lots to say about the vileness of pimping little girls in the beauty pageants, although disappointingly, no sophisticated insights on gender, sexuality, power relationships, or even sexual trafficking, which could have been appropriate under the circumstances. And finally, both she and her little sister Mac occasionally sound much more sophisticated than their years, although its possible that living on the pageant circuit can do that to you.
So let’s move on to the good things:
1. The book is fast paced, and keeps your interest.
2. The chapter titles are very clever, reminiscent of the style used in Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.
3. I like Lexi’s constant impulse to interrogate her own behavior and motivations, and to try to be a good person, or at least recognize when she is not.
4. As mentioned above, I love the way the author developed the story with Lexi’s BGayFF Benny. It’s done well enough that I [almost] can forgive the tired trope of Lead Girl’s Best Friend Who Is A Gay Guy.
5. There is a lot of humor, and a spot-on description of the concerns a teenage girl would have on her first date.
6. The story has not one but TWO “hair tuck” quotes for my hair tuck database (and once again a cute guy with a “crooked smile.” Why oh why didn’t a start a database for THOSE passages too?)
Evaluation: I was made very uncomfortable by the handling of both weight and beauty issues in this book. While it seemed as if the author had good intentions, I think maybe she couldn’t quite escape her own socialization. To me, the story didn’t seem as “empowering” as I think she intended it.
Published by Point, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., 2013