by Siobhan Vivian
First sentence: “For as long as anyone can remember, the students of Mount Washington High have arrived at school on the last Monday in September to find a list naming the prettiest and the ugliest girl in each grade.”
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Review copy provided by my place of employment.
As the title and first sentence suggest, the story centers around The List. The List being an “impartial” judgement of who the prettiest and ugliest (one girl each) of each grade is, along with a short comment about why. We follow the eight girls who were chosen, four “pretty” and four “ugly”, for the week after the post was put up, from Monday morning, when the list was put up until the homecoming dance on Saturday night.
It’s not pretty.
The book is basically an exploration of labels and perceptions of beauty: from the freshman girl, Danielle, who was labeled “ugly” and her desperation to keep her boyfriend who is increasingly uncomfortable being around her; to Bridget, the junior girl labeled “pretty” and her discomfort at that, because she’s always been a bit overweight, and her spiraling into anorexia; to the desperation of Jennifer Biggs, labeled “ugly” all four years of high school, and how that has completely wrecked her psyche, it’s all heartbreaking and disheartening that this would happen.
However, since it’s such an extreme situation, a laboratory if you will, it’s easy to sit back and be clinical, watching it all fall out. While I think Vivian wrote very believable characters, I never really felt like I was given a chance to connect with them, even though I understood motivations behind the actions. As a reader, I felt distanced from the action, even as I was curious to know how it will all play out. I think this one would be a good one to hand to teen girls, along with Uglies and Wintergirls, as a way to spearhead perceptions of beauty and the harshness that labeling and judging others has on our selves, as well as the pressures of society on women.
And for that, it’s worth the read.