Thursday, June 28, 2012

I've got to say, Siobhan Vivian is writing some of the best contemporary teen fiction out there. If you like fiction about the psychology of high school cruelty (and I totally do), her newest novel, The List, is going to be right up your alley.  Vivian just gets teen characters, and she gets all different types, writing just as easily from the popular girl's point of view as the outcast's as the ultra-ordinary kid's.  I was impressed by of Not That Kind of Girl and blogged about it here, and now that I've read The List I'm going to be paying close attention to any new novels so I don't miss them.

The premise of this novel is that every year, about a week before Homecoming,  a list of the prettiest and ugliest girl in each class (Freshman to Senior) is posted all over the high school.  No one knows who writes the list or how the designations are decided.  But everyone pays attention, and for the eight girls on the list, everything changes.  It's easy to understand the hurt of the so-called ugliest girls. Who can hear that adjective flung at herself and not feel hurt?  Even the punk/outcast character in this book, the one who thinks herself above such stupid things, reacts with a hurt she doesn't expect to feel.  But things also change for the girls on the other end of the spectrum. They face jealousy from friends, self-imposed pressure, and they experience the sudden fawning of classmates who didn't show a glimmer of interest before the list appeared.  It's a great premise and Siobhan Vivian creates the perfect cast of characters to inhabit the psychological trap she's created.  There is the aforementioned punk girl, whose designation as ugliest junior only fans the flames of her social rebellion--deciding that she'll give them ugly if they want it, she makes the move not to shower or otherwise tend to social hygiene for an entire week, then crash the Homecoming dance and ruin it.  The prettiest sophomore is the home-schooled (and mother-smothered) girl who hasn't been fitting in--until the List.  Her counterpart on the ugly end?  A girl who previously ruled the school, a gorgeous girl whose ugly is on the inside, again according to the oh-so-respected List.  Her social world nearly collapses in the days leading up to Homecoming, and she was one of the characters I found most interesting, especially as she gets to know the home-schooled girl on a level the others don't. The prettiest junior, a girl secretly battling an eating disorder, begins starving herself again. The freshman "ugly," a great athlete, finds both her confidence and her relationship with her boyfriend strained as a result of the List, while the freshman "prettiest" finds the tension between herself and her brainy sister suddenly stretched to the limit. But the most interesting pairing was the senior class "beauty" and "beast,"  two girls who were once best friends, but parted ways years earlier.  Jennifer has had the misfortune to be listed ugliest for four straight years.  Her former best friend, Miss Prettiest and the Homecoming Queen shoe-in, finds her past rising to confront her in a very ugly way.  What the author does with this is so good.  The reasons the friendship fell apart are complex, and as they are slowly revealed to the reader (as well as to Miss Prettiest) the plot takes a twist that blows the whole concept of the List wide open.

So, why does everyone put such stock in the List?  Who actually writes this thing anyway and why is their opinion so revered?  The characters kind of ask themselves these questions, but even the ones who find the List absurd or cruel are deeply affected by it. The  List, in my opinion, is the bully power of anonymity cloaked in authority. Another question none of the characters ever asks is why it's only the girls who are rated.  There is no male list to accompany the female one.  The author doesn't even draw this to the reader's attention, but it's a realization that comes naturally:  why does everyone, perhaps even the reader, accept that it is okay to rate girls like this--on physical beauty--but the guys are excused? What does this say about expectations for women in society?

I loved this book, and while I felt that some of the stories trailed off and some characters captured my interest a little less than others, I really like how this book makes you think.  Lots of "whys" that won't necessarily be answered overnight. This would be an excellent book discussion choice. It's an excellent choice period. 

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