I'm not deliberately creating a theme of reading books in pairs, with one I love followed by one I'm less enthusiastic about, but it happened again after the National Book Award post. Artichoke's Heart was a beautiful, rich coming-of-age story about an engaging, wry heroine, while Beautiful Americans was more like a soap opera. A superficial soap opera. I received both of these in my delightful box of books from Penguin I won at Presenting Lenore.
Artichoke's Heart by Suzanne Supplee
Rosemary Goode (nicknamed "Artichoke" by the popular Bluebirds the day she wears an unfortunately green, puffy jacket) received an unwanted treadmill for Christmas, attends a "Fat Girl" conference paid for by her size 0 Aunt Mary, and is enrolled in a weight-loss counseling program by her mother. By the time Rosemary has finished "getting back" at her mom and Aunt Mary with cheese curls and Hershey bars, she's gained another 13 pounds. She's now over 200 pounds and has a single pair of pants that fit--sweats. All her mother's and Aunt Mary's efforts are wasted until Rosemary decides herself to lose the weight. And it's not an easy journey. Her mother is diagnosed with cancer while Rosemary is denied her usual coping mechanism--food. Kyle, her dream guy, shows interest in her, but she can't understand why. Meanwhile, she develops an unlikely (to Rosemary) friendship with the lovely, popular Kay-Kay (who eventually proves too nice to stay popular), which challenges her previous assumptions that popular, thin people are happy with no insecurities of their own.
Supplee absolutely nails the "fat girl" relationship to food, insecurities, feelings of "I don't deserve this" and hopelessness that make losing weight so hard. Her Aunt Mary, exasperated, asks how hard it can be to just not eat something? This illustrates the complete inability of the naturally thin to understand the difficulties of losing weight. Rosemary is funny, wry, and insightful, and Supplee makes her a complex heroine relatable to anyone, fat or thin. Rosemary's gradual gain of self-esteem and her friendships with Kyle and Kay-Kay are lovely and believable. She's a girl so likable that I couldn't help but cheer her on. This story was so much more rich and developed than it would have been in less capable hands: Rosemary finds insight into even negative, interfering Aunt Mary's insecurities, and her mother's battle with cancer (and the way she protects her daughter) add another dimension. A lovely, rich, realistic coming-of-age story that should be required reading for junior high and high school students.
Beautiful Americans by Lucy Silag
This took forever for me to get through, and I was delighted when I reached the last page. The premise was promising: four teenagers head to Paris for a year abroad, each bringing his or her own baggage. The structure made it tedious and superficial. Four first-person points of view are used: Alex, a truly hideous name-dropping, fashion-obsessed, know-it-all rich girl; Zack, a closeted gay boy suffocated by his born-again family and closed-minded Southern hometown; PJ, who is escaping family crises that are alluded to in annoying dribs and drabs; and Olivia, who is perfectly nice, loyal to her long-distance boyfriend and autistic younger brother, seeking a dance scholarship. Unfortunately, in a 300-page book, that's 75 pages per voice, so it's more like a single episode of a soap opera than a complete novel. The timeline is a bit jumpy, too, sometimes slipping back between voices, sometimes skipping ahead a bit, so that every chapter I had to regroup to figure out "who, where, and when" again. I cringed at every Alex chapter, since she was so thoroughly unlikable that I was glad when her mother cut off her Amex account. PJ was fine, but the family drama she left behind is never really completely established, and her drama with her host family was overblown. Zack and Olivia were both sympathetic characters, but with only 75 pages each, their changes seem abrupt and I didn't have the chance to get to know them that well. Paris is the backdrop, but with so many points of view to manage, the city takes a backseat. The book ends on a huge cliffhanger that in a more adept effort would have had me pre-ordering the sequel, but I can't be bothered to read any more in this series.