Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Review: Everything Beautiful, Simmone Howell

Everything Beautiful

Simmone Howell

Bloomsbury, 2009 (2008)

Riley is sixteen and lives with her dad and stepmum. Her mum died a while ago, and Riley has been on the verge of going off the rails for a while - mostly drinking and having sex and causing a bit of mayhem with her best friend Chloe. She doesn't talk much about it, but she seems to be having some issues coming to terms with her mum's death. Her dad and stepmum decide that she needs a change of scene and a bit of discipline, so they ship her off to a Christian youth camp for a week.

While at the camp, Riley is initially hostile towards the counsellors, the other two girls in her cabin, and most of the other kids there. During the course of the week her relationships with all these people - and with the people on the outside - change and fluctuate. Although there are a lot of not-so-nice kids there, Riley does meet Olive and Bird, a misfit brother and sister duo, and Dylan. Dylan has been going to the camp for years, and he's always been one of the cool, sporty guys - except after an accident, he's now in a wheelchair, and feels just as out of place as Riley does. The two of them kind of band together on the outside, and end with a little mini-adventure of their own. Their friendship was sweet, and I thought Riley's friendship with her roommate Sarita was nice to see evolve, too. The whole clique-y camp atmosphere was captured really well: there are some people willing to accept Riley, and a lot of others who are snide or mean or downright cruel. (A lot of this has to do with Riley's weight, and one of the other girls in particular seems threatened by Riley's self-confidence, to the point where she plays a pretty horrible prank on her.)

The choice of the Christian camp seemed a little bit strange - the explanation was that Riley's stepmum had some link there, but given that Riley is an atheist it was slightly odd, and I was a bit worried that somehow Riley's atheism was going to get sucked into a general air of rebellion, and that rather than it being a valid choice it was going to come across as something that needed fixing, but in the end there was a good balance and I don't think anybody came across badly based on their religious beliefs. There was a nice contrast between two of the camp leaders, Neville and Roslyn - both are over-enthusiastic and keen for Riley to get involved, including with the more religious aspects of the camp, but while Neville comes across as quite understanding, Roslyn was genuinely unlikable for me.

Reading this sometimes felt like I was reading through a fog. Riley is an interesting protagonist - she bucks the trend of the meek, unconfident heroine, at least outwardly, and she's not afraid to speak her mind or to go after what she wants. Underneath, it's a different story, and it's here that she and Dylan seem to recognise something in each other, but it felt like a lot of these things were unspoken, or left hanging, or slightly obscured. It's difficult to explain in a way, but as a reader I sometimes felt one step removed from what was happening - this is very much Riley's week in the wilderness, and it feels like looking at a few snapshots rather than being right in the middle of it with her. I think in many ways it suits the story, but I found myself feeling a little bit disengaged at a couple of points along the way.

Everything Beautiful is refreshingly different in both setting and protagonists. I really liked the ending - again, it wasn't a spoon-fed happy ending, but one that fit the story well, a mixture of optimistic and realistic that kind of sums up the mood of the whole book. I felt a bit lost at times, but overall a good read.

Overall rating: 6/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

This book counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you enjoyed this :) I really liked the camp setting and the fact that the religious aspect wasn't forceful


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