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The List by Siobhan Vivian

March 11th, 2012 (09:37 pm)
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For as long as anyone can remember, the students of Washington High have arrived at school on the last Monday in September to find a list naming the prettiest and the ugliest girl in each grade.

This year will be different.


So begins Siobhan Vivian's fourth novel, The List. The prologue is immediately followed by the list, which contains the names of eight young women we'll meet shortly: the "ugliest" freshman, swimmer Danielle, who is tagged as "Dan the Man"; Abby Warner, the "prettiest" freshman, who is far trendier than her brainiac older sister; über-popular sophomore Candace Kincaid, who can't believe she's declared the ugliest girl in her class; new student Lauren Finn, who was homeschooled until recently; rebellious junior Sarah Singer, whose anger rolls off her in waves; Bridget Honeycutt, the junior girl burdened by what she did that summer; senior Margo Gable, sitting pretty at the top of the social pyramid; and her ex-best friend Jennifer Briggis, who has been named "ugliest" every single year.

Anyone who had to deal with social hierarchy in school, especially those who were hurt by a Slam Book, a Burn Book, or a school campaign or contest of some sort, will want this book.

Siobhan Vivian is adept at creating distinctive characters. The eight girls shoved into the limelight by the list are easy to tell apart. This is not an easy feat when you're talking about a book with a large ensemble, as opposed to a movie or TV show, where you can clearly see and hear the different actors portraying the roles. With a book, character separation is a combination of the information provided by the author and the imagination and memory of the reader. Vivian has given each girl a different voice and temperament, ranging from outspoken to modest, from self-loathing to overly confident. The girls come from different backgrounds and have different interests, motivations, and looks. We also meet the girls' family members and friends, some of which crossover into the stories of others.

Most importantly, each girl has a compelling story. I know I shouldn't choose favorites, but I've got to say that Danielle and Bridget garnered the most sympathy from me. Lauren reminded me of a girl I once knew - and so did each of the other girls, in other ways. With her appearance and her attitude, Sarah was screaming to be seen and heard, but she felt like no one was listening. Candace showed that her beauty was only skin deep, while Lauren wasn't aware that she was pretty. When Danielle found her stride, she truly shined, and I was so proud of her:

Her mind goes white as she breaks through the surface of the water. She pushes all the pain out of her arms, kicks the hurt free from her legs. She swims her broken heart out. - Page 279

Most of my favorite passages were observations and thoughts, moments where you not only got into a character's mind but also clearly saw through her eyes. There's this cinematic moment when Bridget's little sister Lisa happily jumps out of the car and bounds across campus which I found particularly affecting:

Bridget watches Lisa sprint across the yard toward Freshman Island, weaving in and out of human traffic, her overstuffed book bag slapping against her legs, her long black ponytail stretching down her back. Lisa is growing up so fast, but there are plenty of glimmers of the little girl that shine through.

It gives Bridget hope for herself. That there's still a chance to be the girl she was before last summer.
- Page 51

Margo's memory of the end of eighth grade is also notable:

It had been the last day of school, minutes into no longer being an eighth grader but a high school girl, and to Margo, everything felt different. All that had happened earlier - the gym class water-balloon fight, the good-bye pizza party with soda served in little paper cups - were memories written in a kid's diary. She'd suddenly grown out of her life, even though she could still see the rounded tip of her middle school's flagpole from where she stood, like a doorknob for the sky. - Page 122

One of the girls is quietly struggling with an eating disorder. I think it's extremely classy that her weight is never revealed, and neither is her size. They are just numbers, after all - but we would automatically relate them to our own, wouldn't we? But instead of putting her on a scale of any kind, the author simply notes when the girl tries on a garment that is her size, or a size up or down. Granted, we know she is underweight as opposed to overweight, but by withholding actual numbers, the attention is rightfully placed on the problem, pulling us into her story and her mind rather than comparing her to ourselves or to others. What she sees when she looks in the mirror, and the personal "tests" and things she thinks and does but would never say out loud, made me want to hug her and point her towards BodyHeart.

What happens in our childhoods and our teen years really shapes us and stays with us. There's a reason why they are called our formative years. This book offers us six days to follow eight girls, from Monday to Saturday, from the day the list is first released to the night of the homecoming dance. So much is packed into those days, so many events, both big and small, including those little things that feel so important right when they're happening and those cursory glances and (im)perfect words that make us blush and burn. The List captures memories and moments that are light and heavy, fleeting and forever - all those things that high school is about, as rough and horrible and wonderful and defining and freeing as it can be.

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Review: A Little Friendly Advice by Siobhan Vivian
Review: Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian
Interview: Siobhan Vivian