Thursday, August 23, 2012
On the last Monday in September, the students of Mount Washington High School will see copies of a certain list posted all over the school. It happens every year. It's unavoidable. It's a lottery of the ugliest and prettiest girls in the school, naming one of each category for each grade, 9th through 12th. The list is cruel but official, with a Mount Washington seal imprinted in the corner. Nobody knows who has the seal, or how it is passed down through the generations of list creators. But everybody knows that the notarized list will shape the school year for eight girls.
Siobhan Vivian's young adult novel takes on the volatile world of high school and shows how vicious it can be. The story follows the perspectives of the eight girls who were named on the most recent list, showing how each girl deals with what is either a great boost for popularity (for the prettiest) or a black mark of undesirability (for the ugliest).
Vivian explores the emotional complexities that accompany unrequested notoriety. The winners of Prettiest are flattered, but also cautious, and subconsciously aware that being pretty doesn't really matter all that much. Margot, the senior winner, is unnerved by the knowledge that her sister's "victory" the year before actually caused her to lose friends and retreat from the social strata, and she is also anxious about her unresolved history with her Ugly counterpart. Bridget, the junior prettiest girl, battles with an eating disorder -- one that caused the weight loss that got her recognized. Sophomore prettiest Lauren is new in town, still sheltered after being homeschooled, and she doesn't quite know how to handle the newfound attention she attracts. Finally, Abby, the prettiest freshman girl and a less-than-stellar student, struggles with conflicting feelings of insecurity and superiority, especially since her plain and academically brilliant older sister starts to give her the cold shoulder.
The emotional repercussions for the "ugliest" girls are expectedly severe. The senior, Jennifer, has made the list as ugliest for the fourth year in a row, and she longs to buck expectations as she tries to embrace her "ugliest girl in school" status. Junior Sarah reacts by making herself as ugly as possible, not showering and not changing clothes, to the detriment of her relationship with someone who thinks she's beautiful. Sophomore Candace, pretty and popular on the surface, is alienated by her friends and must address the fact that no one actually likes her as a person. In the freshman class, athletic swimmer Danielle is nicknamed "Dan the Man" and is ostracized by her own boyfriend.
The List alternates between the girls' perspectives chapter-by-chapter, examining their interactions with each other, showing the unexpected alliances that form in the face of rejection, and teasing out the mystery of who writes the list each year.
The characters face their insecurities with varying degrees of success. The "ugly" girls come a longer way than the "pretty" girls in mature self-actualization, but some need more help than others. With its flawed characters, The List demonstrates that beauty isn't a free pass for an easy high school experience, and that what's going on beneath the surface is far more important than appearances.
With so many perspectives to toggle through, it's understandable that not every character's situation is fully explored. That said, I would like to have seen more intricacy in junior Bridget's storyline; her experience with an eating disorder was a little too simplistic. Such a complex, painful affliction is difficult to tackle in spurts like Vivian does throughout The List, and Bridget's internal monologue fell flat for me. Covering a character's internal battle with thoughts of "I'm healthy! Just eat! But I mustn't eat!" just doesn't illuminate the psychologically damaging aspects of that kind of struggle. I applaud Vivian for giving her characters genuine real-life issues and examining how those challenges are colored and complicated by high school peers, but I wanted a little more from this particular storyline.
Overall, The List does an excellent job of illustrating a high school battleground and the relationships therein. Not every character gets a happy ending or has an epiphany, but each girl's experience of growth and self-reflection is drawn in a realistic, thought-provoking way.
Reviewed by Jill Coste