Archive for September, 2011
I should admit that I have read Libba Bray‘s work a bit out-of-order. I started last year with her Printz award-winning Going Bovine and only this year got to her more widely known Gemma Doyle trilogy. Beginning with Going Bovine set up a bit of an unrealistic expectation for Bray’s earlier novels. One of the great strengths of Bovine is the humour. Bray somehow manages to take a presumably tragic circumstance, a teenage boy discovering that he is going to die of Mad Cow Disease, and construct a novel that is not only thought-provoking and touching but, genuinely and consistently funny. In this novel Bray also accomplishes one of the most difficult tasks in YA literature, writing a convincing teenage male voice without making him sound whiney, egotistical, or emo to the extreme (I’m looking at you Rowling). In short, Bray creates a teenage male character that the reader can fully respect and, by the end of the novel, even love. Only a few other YA novelists, that I am aware of, have had equal success with this task (notably including John Green, David Levithan, Sherman Alexie, and Peter Cameron). The fact that Bray is a woman makes this accomplishment somewhat more impressive still (although, having spent most of my teen years hanging out almost exclusively with dudes, I have no doubt that writing an authentic teenage male voice does not require one to have ever been a teenage male).
Suffice it to say, after having read Going Bovine, the Gemma Doyle books came as a bit of a surprise. Historical fiction has never really been my thing, but I figured that the fantasy component would bring the Gemma books into my realm of interest, sort of like Patricia C. Wrede’s Sorcery and Cecilia. But, the truth is, the young women in the novels were, by and large, disingenuous, catty, selfish, and well, just the kind of people I want to grab by the shoulders and shake; many of the same qualities that have driven me crazy in teenage male characters. Now, these traits may be historically accurate, and even totally justified, in a time period when teenage girls’ futures comprised whatever they could bag in the marriage market, however, they hardly ingratiate the reader. I’m sorry to say that after reading all of the Gemma books I was starting to think that Libba Bray couldn’t write an endearing female character as well as she could a male one (I should possibly take this opportunity to say that I did love the way the trilogy ended for Gemma, it reminded me of my favorite moments with Jo March). However, with the release of Beauty Queens, Bray has proved me oh so very wrong.
Beauty Queens not only evokes all of the positive character-associated emotions in the reader that the Gemma trilogy fails to, it also manages to revive satire, a literary genre that I had thought was, well, pretty dead. What makes Beauty Queens so great? First off, the premise is fantastic – a private jet of teenage beauty pageant contestants crash-lands on a remote jungle island where, unbeknownst to the young women, an evil cosmetics corporation is planning to supply a megalomaniacal dictator with heaps of weapons. The result is something like Lord of the Flies meets “America’s Next Top Model,” gruesome yet hilarious deaths at the hands of jungle creatures, etc. also feature prominently. The best part of Beauty Queens is the fact that as the novel progresses and the make-up veneer is wiped away, each young woman begins to let go of the corporate cookie-cutter beauty image they have cultivated to win the competition and begins to reveal who they really are. The whole novel is a fantastically funny yet completely effective indictment of the standards society sets for the young women of today. In short order the girls are hunting and gathering their own food, constructing their own shelter, and generally kicking ass, in heels no less. Beauty Queens also drives home the point that female beauty and femininity itself comes in many forms, all of which are legitimate, regardless of whether or not the person embodying feminine beauty is genetically female (this reminded me of model Andrej Pejicwho has recently become an icon of feminine beauty in the fashion world, although he is, of course, male). Basically, Beauty Queens uses a ludicrous premise and the ensuing opportunities for hilarity to address most of the major social and personal issues surrounding being a teen who is female in modern society. And, my god, does she do it brilliantly. All I can really say is this: judging by how the strength of her work has grown exponentially with the release of each new novel, I can’t wait for Bray’s next one. It’s going to be a doozy.
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