Friday, January 28, 2011

Beautiful by Amy Reed

When Cassie begins 7th grade in a new school, she doesn't want to be ordinary. Doesn't want to be part of the masses of kids who are all the same, boring and typical and average. And she's lucky when Alex notices her, introduces her to a group of guys who think she's the most beautiful thing they've seen. Little 7th grade Cassie's made it cool with a group of 9th graders and knows her year will be much more than boring.

Thing is, these kids aren't really the popular kids or the cool kids. They're the kids who are into doing bad things. Into drugs and alcohol and abusing any and all substances they can get their hands on. Into lots of sex. Into lots of parties.

Cassie gets caught up in this world until she loses the one thing she's learned to care about the most.

Beautiful is the ultimate readalike to Ellen Hopkins -- it is edgy, dark, and immediately gripping. This fast-paced read dives deep into the personal crisis of a girl coming into her own and making a series of poor choices that, in the end, we don't know the ultimate repercussions of. It's a satisfying ending, to say the least, for those who are comfortable with a book that doesn't answer as many questions as it brings up.

I wavered back and forth on the believability of Cassie as a 7th grader, as many of the situations she finds herself in felt much older, much more late high school than middle school, but when I finished the book, I thought she was exactly the age she needed to be. Getting involved in this older group exposed her to things she'd otherwise not experience until high school, and since the kids she was with were 9th graders, their own desires to feel and act older had an impact on Cassie, too.

Let me put it more bluntly: Cassie gets into drugs, and it's not pretty. She's not the beautiful girl she's been told she is. She's ugly. Day long drug-induced hazes and black outs are what makes one pretty. As a reader, you're right there with her, wanting to tell her to stop it and get a grip but at the same time, you want to see her figure it out for herself. She's so young and naive. And the thing is, she's also SMART. She's in advanced classes and does exceedingly well without an ounce of effort (though it's likely the adderall helps out a bit). Cassie is used and abused by those she hangs out with.

There's a scene in a discussion Cassie has with Sarah, a girl with whom she becomes quite close, that I think sort of defines the entirety of Cassie -- she asks Sarah if having sex is supposed to be boring. If she's supposed to get something out of it or if it's meant to just be something girls do and deal with. Cassie's on the verge of something here. She knows and doesn't know how wrong what she's doing and feeling are but she can't put those pieces together right. She's a tough sort of character to hold in your head and one who you will want to dissect and discuss -- do we ever know who she really is? For me, this conflict of character worked really well.

One contentious point in the book comes through the portrayal of the parents. We get very little face time with mom and dad in this book, other than knowing that they're married and still around. Dad and mom both seem to have an idea of what's going on with Cassie, though neither acts upon it. Although it seems a little unrealistic, what made this work for me was remembering this book is told from Cassie's perspective; her skewed perception and her drug-influenced thinking would make her parents to be as they are. I think both her parents were much more concerned and made concerted effort to help, but she couldn't see it. She was elsewhere.

Although I like the ending, the unknowing of what happens to Cassie, I was really sad that the end comes at not the expense of herself but at the expense of another character. A character I wanted to know more about but know I couldn't learn more about because Cassie wouldn't let me. Obviously, this character meant a lot more to Cassie than we're ever led to believe, but it would be impossible to know more than we do or else the ending wouldn't serve as something meaningful to her.

My favorite part of the entire book, though, was the writing. Reed writes in an incredible stream of conscious style and the way the words are tied together really give us the flesh of who Cassie is. I'm right there in her mind and I can't get out of it. It reminded me a lot of Blake Nelson's Girl and this is a connection I really appreciate.

Even though our main character in this book is a 7th grader, this is a book with appeal to older readers. I would be brave enough to say, too, if you know your reader and think that a middle schooler could handle the challenges here, you could sell this to them, too. But I emphasize: know your reader because this is not an easy story to read or understand, and I don't mean that only in the sense of the drugs and sex that are involved. Fans of Ellen Hopkins (whose blurb on the paperback was enough to sell one of my teens on it), Gail Giles, Courtney Summers, and other unflinching contemporary fiction with real voice and pulse will eat this up. To say I'm eager for Reed's summer release, Clean, after reading Beautiful would be an understatement.

4 comments:

  1. I read this when it came out and agree that it is great. I have noticed that many low-skill readers who love Ellen Hopkins aren't quite up to this one; the style overwhelms them. If they're just getting hooked on books, I send them to Linda Glovach's "Beauty Queen."

    My Hopkins fans HATE that Cassie's mom just lets her daughter get beaten because it makes no sense to them. I expect that many of these readers have seen a fight or two involving adults. I read the mom as either drunk or delusional or perhaps both. Her grip on reality isn't strong enough for her to act on her own life, let alone Cassie's.

    And there are lots of other challenging feature to the text: what's really going on with the crazy old lady they solicit money from? Is she really assaulted by her Uncle in the laundry room, or is her anorexia/flu/LSD distorting that?

    Long way of saying that I like the book and recommend it, taking into account the confidence and skill of the reader.

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  2. @Terry: Good points you make. For me, this was more content-wise similar to Hopkins than style-wise. Though style wise, I don't know how far from it it is, either. I think this would definitely be a tough one for reluctant readers because there is so much to be gained in the writing itself, and there are a number of unanswered questions we have to be comfortable with (especially the ones you pointed out).

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  3. This book sounds smart and sad. I watch a lot of intervention and the younger addicts talk about getting addicted to meth at 12 and stuff. Sounds like a good read.

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  4. You liked this one far more than I did (which you already know). I had issues with some of the story as well as the characters....however, I can't say that it wouldn't appeal to teen readers or that it isn't entirely true to life. It's one of those cases where being an adult (and having that knowledge and experience that comes with age) I picked out things that wouldn't likely matter to a teen reader.

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