Sunday, February 1, 2009

Everything Beautiful

by Simmone Howell
Bloomsbury Publishing
292 pages
Reviewed by Melissa

The story feels familiar. Proud Fat Girl, who is also a Bad Girl with a Heart of Gold and a Dead Mom, is exiled to Wacky Christian Camp because she's more than her father can handle. She goes, determined to hate it. Kids at the camp are that weird brand of stereotypical religious: Close Minded and Hypocritical (though some are Broad Minded and Willing to Party). She falls in with the misfits -- a pair of siblings that never quite fit in and a former Hot Guy but is now Scarred for Life because of a Dumb Drinking Accident. Through them she begins to find Herself, as well as Real Love and a Place.

Enough with the clichés, already.

Surprisingly though, clichés aside, the book worked quite well, within its own limits. Riley -- self-proclaimed bad girl with an attitude, and weight, problem -- was quite abrasive at first; still smarting two years after her mother's untimely death, and struggling with weight and insecurity, she hides behind her attitude. It's a tough thing to deal with at first, but as the book progresses, Riley becomes less cartoonish and more three-dimensional, as well as likeable. The dopey-happy Christian-based holiday camp, Spirit Ranch, is the perfect foil for all of Riley's badness: how is she, an overweight, smoking, atheist going to even manage being in the same space as all those virginal, super-religious kids? At first, it's all she can do to make it to Wednesday, the day her friend Chloe is going to spring her from hell. She hates her roommates and is disgusted (and embarrassed) by the advances of the resident cad. But, as the week goes on, she manages to get beyond the stereotypes, and connects with several campers, most notably Dylan, who is back at camp after an accident left him in a wheelchair the year before. It's through making friends that Riley begins to find peace; realizing that maybe there's more to life than drinking and screwing and partying. In the end, she doesn't find religion -- which would have been unbelievable for the character-- but she does begin to find some sort of peace from all the anger she'd been carrying around.

In the end, though, it was the setting -- Australia -- that carried the book. Between the description of the deserts to the Australianisms to the attidude, it oozed Australia. Which made a possibly overly clichéd book that much more readable. And that's a Good Thing.

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