Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book of the Week: BEAUTIFUL by Amy Reed

Note: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and it is filled with adult language and adult content. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.

All right, so just to be clear: Beautiful by Amy Reed is not appropriate for all age groups. Come to think of it, the life of the modern American teenager is not appropriate for all age groups. Both it and this book contain lots of sex, including some incest, drug abuse, alcohol, suicide, violence, all manner of foul language, and many other adult elements I usually don’t get to write about here. I’m not too worried as I know most of you Esteemed Readers are adults, but if you are under the age of thirteen (at least) please check with an adult before reading this book or even this review.

Okay, everyone left I’ll assume is comfortable with an adult discussion of a fantastic book for teenagers and former teenagers. If you’re not squeamish, Amy Reed has written a knock out novel you ought to read, especially if you are writing YA yourself. Reed's prose is stunning and haunting. I usually highlight sections of prose to share with you, but that hasn’t done me much good this week because I ended up highlighting something from just almost every page. Those markings don’t do me any favors when the whole book is highlighted! But that’s Amy Reed’s fault. Her writing really is that beautiful (yuk, yuk, sigh, rolls eyes), and I will be rereading Beautiful later for further study.

Some readers will not like this book at all and I suspect some will hate it. That’s true of any book worth reading, but Reed has designed this book to be offensive. I love that in a work of fiction. Beautiful is meant to upset and disturb the reader. That is its purpose and frankly, I think readers need to be disturbed now and again. You will be thinking about thirteen-year-old Cassie and her “friends” long after you’ve finished this book. If it’s been awhile since you were in high school, you may find yourself looking differently at teenagers you know. If you’re in high school, I think you’ll be delighted to find that here is a writer brave enough to depict what being a teenager in the modern world of drug riddled and broken families is actually like.

There is a dangerous myth in America about high school. I call it the myth of the American teenager and I’ve written about it before in my review of Cracked Up To Be. It comes from too many wholesome television programs, I think, this notion that teenagers are often bright, happy kids, only occasionally rambunctious, like that group from Happy Days or Saved By the Bell (showing my age, I know). Being a teenager is not so bad, think too many adults, but having been one not so very long ago, I beg to disagree. In my own fiction, I write about characters up to the age of twelve, or I skip to adulthood. I did not like high school and I don't like revisiting it even in fiction. I would not repeat it and I find our culture’s obsession with youth to be silly. Who in their right mind would want to be a teenager?

The transition from the world of the child filled with bright colors to the world of the adult, filled with harsh realities is rough. Adults are liars. Children learn this with age and especially bright children like Cassie take it hard. We learn in adolescence that things aren’t the way we first believed them, made worse by the fact that we’ve been sheltered and some adults try to shelter us still, even though we’ve glimpsed behind the curtain. As a child, we learn the police officer is a nice man who is here to help. As a teenager, we might learn the officer can also sometimes be a bully. Adults aren’t always the nice, well-intentioned folks we imagined them to be and our heroes, our parents have feet of clay.

I don’t want to belabor this point, but for me this is the most significant factor of the teenage mindset and its one that Reed nails in Beautiful. An adult knows that so and so is an alcoholic and verbally abusive, but has the maturity to recognize that so and so also takes care of their family and makes a valuable contribution to the world. We split the difference and rationalize because we recognize the necessity of so and so and we know we have our own shortcomings. We also know that there are many unpleasant things in the world, but have learned to assimilate them into our experience and to focus on the more positive aspects of life.

But this maturity of thought comes with age. To a child, the world is often black and white, and being an adolescent teaches that child to think in shades of grey. And it doesn’t come easy. Often, a teenager will feel betrayed by the world. Teenagers focus on the morbid, which confounds parents, but that’s because they’ve already assimilated the morbid into their thoughts. To the teenager, corruption is new and everywhere and offensive and the whole world is just ignoring it.

As I read Beautiful, I occasionally thought that Cassie was being just a little melodramatic, but then I realized she was just being thirteen. Reed absolutely channels teen angst. Beautiful is written in the first person and Cassie’s perspective of the world is the reason for reading this book. If you’re an adult trying to understand how your teen thinks, read this book. It should help clear things up. For example, here is Cassie’s description of Christmas:

I am looking around, but all I see are white, smiling faces and multicolored scarves, all these people with something to look forward to, all of them with faith that tomorrow morning will bring something new. They will wake up and find their glittering boxes under their trees, full of all the things they had to have. They will open the boxes and their lives will be complete for that moment. Then there will be food and eggnog and a heavy night of sleep. Then New Year’s Eve and empty promises, hangovers, and football. Then it will be back to work, back to school, back to everything exactly the same as it was before. The only difference will be the new date. The only difference will be the new sweaters, new jewelry, new scarves that they will stop wanting as soon as they get them…

…A young family with a baby is fighting next to a truck. The wife is red-faced and crying as she holds the baby dressed like a little elf. For some reason, I suddenly feel like crying. That baby has no idea it’s wearing a stupid pointy green hat. He has no idea his mother and father hate each other. He doesn’t know there’s nothing he can do about any of it.

It’s cheery stuff, no?  But at thirteen, I knew exactly what Cassie meant. I see that we’re already running long, and I haven’t even told you about the book yet. Well, we’ll just have to go long this week is all. I wanted to spend some time on point of view, because this is a story that is all about voice. Everything that happens in Beautiful stems from Cassie’s perspective of the world. She’s a dark character with a head full of dark thoughts. Is it any wonder then that dark things follow?

The plot of Beautiful is thus: Thirteen-year-old Cassie and her family have just moved to Seattle and she is determined to change her identity to someone more exciting, sort of like Linus Tuttle from last week’s Mamba Point. Linus talked to black mambas to change his identity. Cassie slaps on some bad girl makeup, loses her virginity, and does a bunch of drugs (I miss middle grade). She falls in with the bad crowd, the really bad crowd, especially her new insane best friend, Alex. Alex will terrify parents. She is the worst possible friend for Cassie and she helps her (or forces her to) discover drugs. Cassie gets deep into drugs fast, her life spirals out of control, and she does plenty of naughty things that will further horrify parents. Really, if I gave an award for scariest book for parents of a teenage girl to read, I would give it to Beautiful. I’m not going to tell you what happens to Cassie, but you can imagine it’s nothing good.

The story of Beautiful is very much character driven. You will love, hate, pity, and empathize with Cassie and all of the supporting characters, even psycho Alex. The plot never feels intrusive and Reed’s writing is so mesmerizing I found I was helpless to do anything but keep reading, even as Cassie’s story depressed me. And there is a point to it all. Cassie’s viewpoint, though jaded, is one it will likely benefit you to consider. I never agreed with her, but I saw her point.

Some readers will be repulsed by Beautiful, and as I said, I think that’s a good thing. Cassie’s story is repulsive. It’s also rather common. Some will wonder if it’s appropriate for teens to read this book. Bear in mind, I’m not a father, but I would say it depends on the teen. I think this would be a very good read for some thirteen-year-olds, and others would be much happier with Twilight (although talk about a twisted relationship!). However, if a teenager resides in a school with a class of five hundred or greater, odds are good there is nothing in Beautiful that will surprise him or her.

Let’s talk about drugs. There’s a phrase I never thought I’d use on this blog. We can wage all the war on them all we want and they’re not going away. Understand, I despise drugs. I’ve seen them destroy the lives of people I cared about. Sure, occasionally someone does a bunch of drugs and then writes The Shining, but more often the drug abuser wrecks their life and harms their family. And those drugs are in our high schools.

I grew up in small town Indiana, not Indianapolis, and we had plenty of drugs. I knew a fourteen-year-old girl with a serious coke habit, three kids killed themselves over drugs before I graduated, and I heard of much worse things in the teacher’s lounge when I substitute taught. All the hating and denouncing of drugs in the world isn’t likely to make them go away. They were there when my parents went to school and I expect they’ll be there in some form when my own children are in school.

The solution to the problem of teenagers and drugs is not to ignore it. Reed knows this, which is, I assume, part of the reason she has written such a frank and open book about teens and drugs. Reed tells it like it is, though to be honest I’ve never been hooked on drugs, so I can’t speak with a whole lot of authority. Beautiful doesn’t condescend and Reed doesn’t preach. She tells her story honestly and in a way teens will relate to. And she establishes authorial authority by being honest about the positive aspects of drugs, and there must be some or people wouldn’t do them:

There is a buzzing inside me as I look around the room. I am surrounded by beautiful people and white light, sparkling, the texture of cellophane. It cuts through the mattress, the floor, the table, Alex, Wes, and all these people I don’t know. But it is soft. It is like dewdrops, like a ball of liquid mirrors, reflecting all the light on me. I am shining, squeaky clean, sparkling. I gulp down my cheap, warm beer and it is the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted. I take a drag from my cigarette and feel the smoke lift me. I stand up, float out of the room, and enter the noise outside… I am part of this thing that is huge. I belong here. It would not be the same without me.

Because Reed tells the truth about Cassie’s enjoyment of drugs, the reader will believe her later when she tells about the consequences of her actions. The teen reader who accompanies Cassie will be able to recognize a bad scene and will be able to experience the catharsis that comes with watching a protagonist reap the whirlwind:

The spinning comes back and I puke behind a dumpster. I stay there for a while. I think about not leaving. I think about freezing to death behind this dumpster in a miniskirt and high heels. I wonder who would find me. I wonder if I would be dead or just barely alive, if I would end up in a hospital bed or a cemetery. I imagine my parents frantic, mourning me, my mother weeping, my father swearing silently to himself. I imagine them blaming themselves, and this thought makes me warmer.

Okay, this review is insanely long, so I’m about to sign off. But before I do, I just want to make sure I mention that there is a theme throughout Beautiful of terrible, or at least, flawed parents. Watch for it. There is a reason these teenagers are so depressed and eager to lose themselves in drugs and good on Amy Reed for spreading some of the blame where it belongs. I would share some examples, but I’d rather close with a few of my favorite passages from the book. Don’t forget to come back on Thursday to see Amy Reed face the 7 Questions, but for now enjoy some of her fine prose (if you want the uncensored version, you’ll have to buy the book; this is a blog about children’s literature, after all):

This is too easy. It should not be this easy. I should not be able to slip a box of sleeping pills in my back pocket at the grocery store whenever I need to recharge. I should not be able to wake up and feel fine and do it all over again. I should be dying. My stomach should be falling out. My parents should be grounding me. I should be getting arrested. Someone should be trying to stop me.

The fluorescent light reflects off the puke-green walls and makes us look like we’re dead.

This is what he meant by “I want to get to know you better.” This is the “alone time.” This is when we pass a joint back and forth and I let him talk and let him think I am interested in what he’s saying. We are talking about the things you are supposed to talk about before you have sex.

“I love you, too,” I say because it’s the only thing I can think of, because it’s the only thing you’re allowed to say when someone says they love you first. Maybe that’s all love is—one person saying it because they think they’re supposed to and the other person feeling too guilty to say anything else—and everyone’s delusional who believes it’s anything like Shakespeare, because Romeo and Juliet were just crazy and horny and the same ages as me and Ethan. Maybe this is all love is and all it will ever be—boys f***ing girls and pretending it’s love, girls getting f***ed and pretending they like it, saying “I love you, too,” and wanting to throw up.

This is just like a rap video (Cassie is a white girl at a party of mostly black people—MGN), I think, except there are no expensive cars or champagne and everyone’s a little less beautiful. I wonder if I am a racist for thinking that.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.