Monday, November 26, 2007

Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall

In Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall, sixteen-year-old Tessa finds herself in heaven after she's beaned on the head during an unfortunate dodge ball incident in gym class. Heaven looks familiar since it turns out to the mall. (Hey, that's my version of heaven too!) With both of her parents working at the mall, Tessa has grown up as a "mall brat," so she knows it inside and out. But this heavenly version isn't quite the same, and when Nail Boy (a teenage genius who tried to drill a bit into his head in an effort to find enlightenment) shows up, he tells Tessa she's got to figure out the answer to her question before she can move on.

What question? Huh? Tessa doesn't even know she has a question, much less what it is or how to answer it, but she realizes she's supposed to go on a journey to her past and figure out some important things about herself. She can't leave the mall until she does. Thus begins a flashback to Tessa's life from babyhood to current teenage status.

I ended up really liking this book, especially the character of Tessa, whom I cheered for all the way through. Tessa is overweight, she does things that are morally questionable and absolutely hilarious, she's got a bad attitude--and yet she's completely likable and sympathetic. She's fun to read. In fact, she might be one of my favorite characters of the year. And I am lucky I stuck with the book to find this out because the beginning was a bit bumpy for me. I finally figured out the problem. This book has a totally unnecessary supernatural framework. The set-up--getting to the heavenly mall, meeting Nail Boy, and all that otherworldly jazz---is smoke and mirrors, seemingly there only to entice the kind of reader who liked The Lovely Bones. But if feels too cute, too aware of itself. It feels utterly contrived. When the author gets past the supernatural crap (and normally I love supernatural crap!) to the story of Tessa, the book takes off. And it's really, really good. I felt like I truly knew Tessa by the end of the book. She was our heroine, warts and all. I loved seeing her grow up, watching her social foibles and fumbles, and laughing at the outrageous things she would do. Tessa feels real. The Heavenly Mall/otherworldly hijinks don't. They lend very little to this tale, and in fact just clutter it up. This should have been a straightforward book about a girl growing up. Those are the parts (luckily, the majority of the book) that work. At the end of the tale when Tessa is back in the mall and telling Nail Boy, who is kind of her Ghost of Christmas Past, all about what she's learned, I again lost patience.
I'd highly recommend this book despite my problem with the supernatural setup. Tessa's voice was strong, likable and engaging. I enjoyed it so much I read it in an afternoon--it's told in free verse so this helped speed things along--and I'll be looking to read more of Wendy Mass's writing. (This is something like her seventh book. Other titles of hers include Leap Day and A Mango Shaped Space. ) Has anyone else read Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall?

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