No one has ever looked at Francie without doing a double-take. Everything about her is big – her hair, her make-up, her boobs. Francie’s the kind of girl who ends up wearing the “whore’s raincoat,” an ankle-length lime green coat that is doled out to cover up inappropriate clothing, on her first day at a new school. No one has ever looked at Val twice. Why would they? She’s practically invisible, her hair “brown like something you looked for and looked for and couldn’t find until your mom told you to check under your bed, and there it was, crumpled in a dusty corner where you couldn’t reach it” (pg. 4-5. All quote taken from ARC – language may change.) But Francie notices Val. She sees something in her, and soon Val is drawn into Francie’s orbit.
There is a delicious hint of magical realism in Madison’s version of suburbia, but it’s not a pretty kind of magic. It’s slippery and sneaky, and a little bit dangerous. The book’s magic centers on two things: Francie and shoplifting. When Val is with Francie suddenly anything is possible, and the Montgomery Shoppingtowne Mall may just hold the most beautiful thing in the world. And the magic changes Val, as she pulls on her stolen motorcycle jacket and uses a heavy layer of eyeliner like armor.
Bennet Madison’s character descriptions shine. He has the ability to sum a person up in one biting line. Not much time is spent on Val’s mother, but when she is described as “the kind of person who saw that there was a thunderstorm and went out without an umbrella anyway, because it seemed futile trying to stay dry so why bother” (pg. 75), the reader knows exactly what kind of person she is. And since she is the center of Val’s world, the descriptions of Francie are exquisite:
You should understand that she was not exactly a supermodel. I mean, she was beautiful, but she wasn’t. Yeah, she was tall and blond and booby with amazing legs, but there was something a little funny about her jawline – something square and sharp and almost masculine. Her shoulders were too broad; one eye was just the tiniest bit wonky; her nose had a slight hook; and if you looked closely you could see small blossoms of acne under the crust of her caked-on makeup. It didn’t matter. There was just something about her. If you thought too hard about it, she was almost ugly. But then you looked again, and your jaw would drop.
She was a more perfect body pieced together from spares and defectives. From day to day, her appearance was never quite the same. No picture resembled the last. And sometime I wondered if she was replacing her own parts with things she had lifted, one by one. A rhinestone where her left eye should have been. A fist-sized crystal paperweight for a heart. It’s possible that she was a robot or a hologram. But aren’t those things real, too? (pg. 66-67)
And the descriptions aren’t just evocative – they’re something Madison uses to drive the plot. It’s through Val’s shifting descriptions of Francie that we start to see the chinks in her armor and to recognize Val’s growing independance from her friend.
I’m always fascinated by a good writer’s ability to make something important by leaving it out. It’s a tough line to walk – how to bring up a subject just enough that the reader recognizes that it is important, but skirt around it so that it is clear that the narrator is avoiding the subject. Val refuses to so much as think about her older brother, Jesse, for much of the book – but she does it in a way that makes it very clear just how important Jesse is.
I have seen several mentions of the language in this book. And while I don’t have a problem with the swearing, which I think is used effectively in the narrative, I did cringe at the casually homophobic language. Is it realistic to have a teenager call something they don’t like “gay”? Absolutely. And I certainly recognize that Val and Francie are supremely flawed characters. I think teen readers will recognize that, too. But I do wonder why the author thought it was necessary. (A side note: Am I feeling a little bit uncomfortable calling out an openly gay author about homophobic language? Yep. I really would like to hear his input on this.)
Since reading this book I’ve been thinking about why I have such a strong reaction to homophobic language in YA literature. I think it comes down to this: when teens read about Val and Francie shoplifting, they recognize that what the girls are doing is wrong. When a character in a book uses racist language, just about every teen I know is going to recognize that the author is making a choice in using that language, and is going to recognize that the language is hateful and hurtful. From the conversations I hear every day, I don’t think that’s true with homophobic language. To keep my library a safe and comfortable space for all patrons, I regularly try to talk to my young library users when they use homophobic language. In my experience from these conversations, the understanding of why it is wrong just isn’t there yet with a large number of kids and teens. I hope that parents, teachers, and librarians will use this book as a starting point for having these important conversations. And I would love to hear everyone’s input on this issue.
The Blonde of the Joke on the web.
Bennett Madison on the web.