George, Madeleine. 2008. Looks.
Start in the sky. Look down at the valley. Green, plush, peaceful landscape. Drop down a little, towards the town, then skim over it, past the low beige buildings of the university, the clean white spires of the Congregational churches, the flat green welcome mat of the town common, out towards the edge of town, towards Valley Regional High School, a rambling, one-story brick building surrounded by soccer fields, field hockey fields, football fields, parking lots. Hover above Valley Regional High. Watch the crowd of kids as it streams into the school like water sucked down a storm drain. And listen: Even from high up you can hear the hum of a school on the first day back in September.Meghan Ball, one of our two narrators, is obese. "Meghan Ball is at once the most visible and invisible person in school. In the obvious way, she is unbearably visible. She takes up the most space of any person in the entire school--in the entire town, in fact. She is impossible to overlook in class pictures or on the risers during chorus concerts--they always make her stand in the back row, where her round head hovers above a space big enough to accommodate three normal-sized kids. She has a back as wide as a basketball backboard, perfect for spitting on and pelting things at. In this way, Meghan is a walking bull's-eye target. But then, just when she feels like she can't get any bigger, when she's feeling brontosaurically huge and exposed, someone will walk right past her--right past her--saying something totally private they would never want anyone else to hear, just as if Meghan wasn't there at all--like right now, right this very second, watch." (3)
Now drop, plummet straight down like a stone, through the pebbly roof and the air-conditioning ducts and the bundles of wiring and the soft acoustic tiles, until you burst into the teeming front hall of the school. Float up by the ceiling where you can take it all in, the blended smoothie of backpacks and T-shirts and freckled shoulders and tank tops, ponytails and crew cuts and hoop earrings and knotted leather necklaces. Wince at the noise, the crashing surf of screeching, laughing, yelling.
Now pivot, face the light blue cinderblock wall next to the main doors of the school. Someone is standing there, pressed into the auditorium door alcove, someone so huge and still she might be mistaken for a piece of architecture if it weren't for the sky blue windbreaker that marks her as human, the backpack sitting limply on the floor by her feet. Look at her. Nobody else is, but you look at her. Look at Meghan Ball. (1-2)
Heavy on descriptions and details, Looks examines high school life through two sets of eyes. Meghan, whom we've already met, and Aimee Zorn, a girl with an obvious eating disorder, a girl obviously in pain who is struggling with her life the only way she knows how: by controlling what goes in and out of her mouth and by writing poetry. In alternating voices, Looks explores most facets of high school life.
There are moments when the observations, the descriptions, are right on:
"It's amazing what people will say right in front of you when you're obese, like you're deaf or something, like you're retarded. Or like you don't even speak the language, like you're a tourist lost in the land of the thin." (5)But for me, the narrative was too detached. The third person present tense which surprisingly blended seamlessly with passages written directly to address the reader (that would be second person plural???) just didn't work well for me all the time. I became impatient. I became annoyed. While I wanted to love this book--really wanted to love it--I found myself increasingly annoyed by a few things. Nothing major. But the fact that "the fat girl" was always "the fat girl" and sometimes the "friendless fat girl" or the "lonely fat girl" but hardly ever just Meghan was something that really really really really annoyed me. Fat wasn't only a label, it was the defining characteristic for Meghan. And that just doesn't sit well with me. I felt that a bit more fleshing out for all the characters was in order. I felt Aimee Zorn got the better treatment, better back story, more heart and soul. At the end of the book, I felt I still didn't know Meghan. She was still just the fat girl. She may be the fat girl who now has a friend. But still. I didn't feel that way with Aimee. I felt she was more developed as a character. This was her story. Fat girl was just there along to help skinny girl win the day.
"The fat girl who loses her only friend sees, all at once, how everything works. She sees that all promises are fictions, all friendships are games with winners and losers. The fat girl left alone in the world sees that every human being has a value assigned to them that they are helpless to change no matter what they do, and she sees that people trade each other like baseball cards: three cheap friends for two valuable friends, a whole group of worthless friends for one popular friend. It's like dying and coming back to life, being a fat girl who loses her only friend; it gives you an insight into the people around you that the average person couldn't bear to have.
But if it doesn't break her, this insight makes the friendless fat girl strong. The fat girl left alone in the world becomes the ultimate outsider, and outsiders always know the insiders' secrets, because insiders don't care what's happening on the outside--they never check to see what the outsiders know. They usually don't even know who the outsiders are. The person on the bottom sees what's happening on top, the person at the back sees what's happening in front, the person on the outside sees what's happening at the center, and the fat girl who loses her only friend is under, behind, and outside all at once; if she cares to look, she can see everything in every direction. God must be a friendless fat girl, because only friendless fat girls are as omniscient as God." (144)
Based on what reviews I've read, I'm alone in seeing that this one has a few flaws. Most seem to really really enjoy it. And it's not that I didn't enjoy aspects of it. But it seemed impersonal and detached in places. Unemotional even in a few spots. And while detachment doesn't make a novel good or bad or whatnot. It does make it slightly less satisfying. Would I recommend it? Yes. Other people seem to be enjoying this one a good deal. And the story is a good one even if it reads closer to a parable (is that the right word???) than an actual story.
Other reviews: Little Willow, Bookshelves of Doom, Sarah Miller, Teen Book Review.
Also of interest: Publishers' Weekly article, author's website.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews