Now look closely at two girls who remain quiet: overweight Meghan and thin Aimee. Possibly, they are standing still. Almost impossibly, they might be standing together.
Meghan is a sophomore who, despite her size, feels as though she is invisible - and likes it that way. Unless they are making fun of her, none of her peers really talks to her, but she hears everything - all of the gossip about other students and faculty that is whispered and shouted by those who don't notice her presence.
Amy is a freshman who wants to be heard but does not want to speak up. She joins the Photon editorial collective in hopes of having her poetry published in the issues, but she's somewhat scared about sharing her poems with others. Her reading and writing were habits encouraged by her mother's latest boyfriend, a poetry professor who just moved out of the house. She feels his absence acutely, even more than the absence of food. She eats very little, if at all, and refuses to discuss her eating habits with her mother. She pretends that she has allergies that limit her food choices.
The two girls come together after Aimee is betrayed by Cara, the popular, has-it-all girl who once hurt Meghan. (Please note that in both cases, the pain is emotional, not physical.) Also involved is J-Bar, the jock of the walk, who taunts Meghan every chance he gets. When given the opportunity to put both Cara and J-Bar in their places, what will the girls do? In confronting their bullies, they will have to confront things in their lives that they would rather stay silent, secret. Their voices are unique and ultimately bold, empowering themselves and each other - and readers.
The two protagonists and antagonists aren't the only important people here. There's also Ms. Champoux (pronounced "shampoo") who is "fierce in person" but horrible at reading the morning announcements. Though not a direct confidante of either Meghan or Aimee, she will come into play time and time again in unexpected ways. There are four mentor figures in the book: Aimee's father-figure Bill, no longer a member of her household; Meghan's mother, who is obviously kind and loving, but remains peripheral; Aimee's mother, who is worried about her daughter but tiptoes around her; and Mr. Handsley, Meghan's English teacher, who is not afraid to speak his mind.
Full of information, insight, and emotion, Mr. Handsley is a truly remarkable character. There ought to be more teachers like him, in books and in real life, who challenge their students and want them to succeed. He sees Meghan, even though she thinks she's kept herself well-hidden in this and every other class. He wants his pupils to be active in his class, to really care about what they are reading and discussing. Mr. Handsley is frustrated throughout the book by the obnoxious J-Bar and his friends. When his fuse blows, he must face the consequences of his actions, and the fallout is felt by all of those involved.
This novel says a lot about school status, and it says it well. The writing is lovely, with third-person narration that gets the reader into each girl's mind but also provides the reader with omniscience - something that Meghan's invisibility provides her with, to a point, as well. What the book says about looks, popularity, and power will stay with readers because it is both true AND surmountable, and because of how it is presented.
There are books about writing poetry. Books about reading poetry. Collections upon collections of actual poetry. Sometimes, prose can be like poetry, written so melodically that readers can't help but fall into the rhythm within the first few pages and keep pace until the last sentence. If that story offers an intriguing plot in addition to its creative writing style, readers will be further captured, considering the characters and events carefully as they read and long after they've finished the book. This is one of those books. Madeleine George's descriptive, emotional writing style brought to mind the works of Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak), Laura Kasischke (Feathered) and Jane Mendelsohn (Innocence).
With her debut novel, Looks, Madeleine George has made herself an author to watch.
Here are some quotes from the book to give you both further insight into the characters and examples of the lovely writing:
"Children," he says wearily after a moment, "I understand that adolescence is complicated. Physically, yes, emotionally, yes, but more than anything else adolescence is ethically complicated. How are we to behave? How are we to treat each other? These are the big questions, perhaps the biggest of our lives, and they are questions that we must begin to confront as adolescents. And yet if we are young, and beautiful, and powerful, it's naturally tempting to forget about these questions, and to use our youth and beauty and power not for good but for evil. Evil is easy. Evil comes cheap, children." - Mr. Handsley, Page 58
The fat girl left alone in the world becomes the ultimate outsider, and outsiders always know the insiders' secrets, because insiders don't care what's happening on the outside -- they never check to see what the outsiders know. They usually don't even know who the outsiders are. The person on the bottom sees what's happening on top, the person at the back sees what's happening in front, the person on the outside sees what's happening at the center, and the fat girl who loses her only friend is under, behind, and outside all at once. - Page 144
She knows she has to join in or people will know something is up, but her hands are dead on the desk in front of her, she can't make them move. And all along the column of her spine she can feel coming like a train speeding toward her, gathering speed and sound and intensity, a reaction like none she has ever had before. With nothing in her mouth to bring it on. The sizzle rises to a roar in her ears and she knows that in less than thirty seconds all five of her senses will be consumed in a silver fire. She has to get out of there before they all see it. Aimee gets to her feet and bolts from the room. - Page 148
Her memory of Bill has become an Impressionist portrait, broad brushstrokes that only form an image from a distance. The reality of him is blazing with exquisite detail -- she almost can't bear to take him all in. - Page 171
I could quote the opening and closing lines as well, but I want you to read those for yourself when you have the book in your hands and connect those passages with the physicality of reading.
The postergirlz selected this title to be a recommended read in the August 2008 issue of readergirlz. Read the issue in full.
I also selected Looks as one of the Summer Teen Fiction Musts in this piece for SparkNotes Literature.
Wicked Cool Overlooked Books (WCOB) is a monthly blog notation encouraged by Colleen from Chasing Ray: On the first Monday of every month, she posts about a book she enjoyed and wishes others would pick up. She invites others to post their picks as well. Discover other titles I've marked as Wicked Cool Overlooked Books.
Read my review of Madeleine George's second novel, The Difference Between You and Me.