by Joyce Carol Oates
Big Mouth & Ugly Girl
HarperCollins, May, 2002.
Hardcover, 272 pages.
Ages Young Adult
Joyce Carol Oates has turned her considerable talents to writing a novel about teenagers in a contemporary American high school, and her portrait of them is both accurate and fascinating. The American public high school offers a wonderful experience for the privileged few who are popular, but the remainder of the student body has to find their way through the purgatory of adolescence when one is no longer a child and not yet an adult. This emotional and physical no man's land must be traversed and then, if one survives, one emerges stronger and wiser and ready to take on adulthood. Ms. Oates has entered this world to tell a compelling story of how two teens, both outsiders, solve these problems and find solace in a deepening friendship.
Meet Ursula Riggs, who takes after her father who is way over six feet tall. Ursula has made her peace with being anything but a cute, petite charmer like her mother and her little sister. Ursula, who is a top student, decides to become Ugly Girl, big, roughly dressed and definitely defiant. No one messes with big Ursula because she doesn't care what others think of her and she definitely does not put up with anyone, and that includes teachers. Ursula has her hair cut short, and lots of earrings in her ears. She is the best basketball player on the girls' team, and she plays with skill and ferocity. Ms. Oates lets Ursula tell her story in first person.
Matt Donaghy is also a top student who likes to make people laugh. He is tall and gangly, freckle- faced and pretty much a straight arrow. Matt writes for the school paper and has been elected vice president of his class by a margin of eleven votes. Matt's story is told in the third person because he is much less self-absorbed than Ugly Girl.
One day in the lunchroom Matt jokes that if his play is not chosen for the drama festival, what might he do, blow up the school? His friends all laugh because Matt is a just being silly. Unfortunately, he has been overheard and his innocent joke is taken so seriously that he is arrested. Matt is dumbfounded, and his family is devastated. Rumors fly all over the school and everyone is excited and full of groundless speculation. Suddenly, Matt is a pariah, and he is deserted by all his friends. Only Pumpkin, his beloved dog, does what all good dogs do. She keeps Matt company and she does not judge. But Pumpkin cannot discuss all the emotions racing through Matt's head, and he feels deserted by everyone. Then he receives and email from Ursula Riggs. Ugly Girl does not like the injustice of how Matt has been treated, so she has decided to make a stand.
Ms. Oates skillfully takes the reader through the emotions, self-doubt, and rage that come with the teenage years. The characters reveal their innermost feelings through emails, most deleted, but some sent. The story moves along as both students develop as they suffer through rejection and betrayal and become stronger. The understanding that this writer brings to this story will be appreciated by young readers, and it will be revealing to adults who must watch the new generation deal with problems that they never had to face.
--Sarah Reaves White
Big Mouth & Ugly Girl is available for purchase on Amazon.com
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This review was published in the July-August, 2002 of The Internet Writing Journal.
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