Meghan Ball is, to put it bluntly, fat. Hugely fat. But despite this fact, she’s sometimes literally an invisible girl at her high school. People treat her either like part of the scenery or she’s the bullseye for horrific abuse. She copes with the sadness that these two unhappy poles bring her by binge eating until she passes out. Aimee Zorn is physically Meghan’s polar opposite. She’s the daughter of a single, absentee mother who (in her opinion) seems better at saving ne’er do wells and turning them into boyfriends than parenting a teenage girl. Likewise, she reacts to this strained relationship by writing poetry and starving herself. The two girls become unlikely friends while plotting to get even with the popular girl who has betrayed them both.
I’ll say this: This book had a lot of potential for me when I picked it up. It’s an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, it’s the subject of rave reviews on the interwebs, Robin McKinley, (a Newbery winner) called it “Brilliant.” … Unfortunately, Robin McKinley, ALA, the interwebs and I disagree. Or, more probably, we’re just not looking for the same things.
I expect books that involved eating disorders (for whatever age of reader) to give a realistic account of what it is to have an eating disorder and provide a story arc that addresses that issue in a plausible and satisfying manner. What may be satisfying to me, however, may be different from an unbiased reader. Yes, it’s personalizing a medium that’s meant to be read by everyone, not just people with eating disorders, so please take me my comments with a grain of salt. But overall, Looks just doesn’t do it for me.
George does an excellent job of creating a perfect WASPy high school hell, chock full of apathy from the students, teachers, and administrators. I’ve met a version of all the characters in real life, from Ms. Champoux the highschool administrator dreaming of a career in juvenile corrections, and J-Bar the bronzed horrible antagonist with a secretly soft heart for puppies and basketball, to Mr. Handsley the passionate teacher who believes in the protagonists, but ultimately is too non-conformist for his own good. Come to think of it – I enjoyed the peripheral characters more than the main ones. But even though Meghan and Aimee are more pitiable than likeable, their narratives are constructions of very authentic voices.
The whole idea of being seen or invisible in society with regard to appearance is a compelling issue in high school and beyond. I love that Meghan could literally get away with things most kids would think impossible, simply because of apathy, indifference or disgust on the part of her teachers and other students. While it seems that Aimee is trying to make herself literally disappear, she wanted very much to be seen and loved, like Meghan. She is seen by her classmates and by her family, but also like Meghan, she very rarely has the words to make herself understood or to communicate her needs outside of her poetry.
Other than the plot and the niceties revolving around the ideas incorporated into the text, I’m not as pleased with the book as most critics for the simple reason that I feel that almost nothing is resolved. It’s as if George cooks up a huge pot of pasta, lets it boil, then dumps it all over the floor and walks away.
I find the plot to be a bit predictable – perhaps I’m a bit too well-versed in the evils of adolescent girls. Aimee – an amateur poetess – joins the school’s literary magazine and meets Cara Roy, a beautiful, multi-talented golden girl who takes her under her wing. We learn that Cara and Meghan used to be best friends, then “something happened” during a summer in middle school to disband the friendship and make Meghan (and Cara) who she is today. Aimee opens up to Cara by sharing her poetry, one of which is about anorexia. Cara reveals that she used to be anorexic as a result of this same incident, although neither she or Meghan never intimates to Aimee what has happened. At this point, we can all see what’s coming – Cara betrays Aimee’s trust and creativity as well. Aimee turns to Meghan, who has been trying to warn her about Cara. They decide to make Cara pay for her wrongdoings. They get even.
There’s also the convenient sub-plot of Life at Home. Aimee hates her mom for being so busy and she misses Bill, the hippie poet who used to be her mom’s live-in boyfriend but has since moved on. She wishes he would be her father and support her interests and feed her lime Jell-O, but the professor of literature has other things on his plate besides the daughter of an ex-girlfriend. (Think Hippie Hank Moody). When Bill says that Aimee should rely on her mother for support, Aimee releases herself of her relationship with Bill not without effort, but not really with conflict either. Aimee’s relationship with her mom is no better. When her mother says that she’s proud of Aimee for being creative and writing her poetry, and that Bill would be proud of her, too, Aimee lies to her and manipulates her. I think this is supposed to be the turning point in their relationship, but it falls flat. The reader doesn’t actually meet Meghan’s family until she brings Aimee home one day. She has a kind of lovely, almost Stepford home. Her mother and her little brother Jesse stay at home and make play-doh and bread together. She does comment about her mother’s blithe denial of life and reality, but it’s never developed further.
The conflict with Cara and J-Bar is probably the most unsatisfactory of all. They work out a method of revenge that humiliates them both, but all the reader gets in the end is a final confrontation in which Meghan sticks up for Cara, but then Cara turns on both Meghan and Aimee saying “the two of you deserve each other.” Really, no one is satisfied. This is a prime opportunity for all of them to talk about what has happened either over the years or the past few weeks but instead it just becomes a one-sided confrontation. Nothing has changed and no one feels better for it.
Perhaps this was supposed to be the message – that sometimes life just doesn’t resolve itself. People stay angry, bad blood remains bad, and even prime opportunities for climax don’t result in denouement. But in the final and following chapter and narrative of the book – things seem to be … resolved. Aimee and Meghan are a unit. We are invited to look at them. How they are visible together. How they … eat lunch together? This brings the reader to the slight issue of the eating disorders. Won’t someone please think of the eating disorders? What happened to those pesky things? Aimee eats? In school? With Meghan? What about Meghan? Does she still eat herself unconscious? Eating disorders don’t spontaneously self-correct upon revenging yourself. Especially if it’s not revenge that’s fulfilling. Um, you guys … the kids are not alright!
Eating disorders are strange extra characters in this story. While Aimee and Meghan never actually admit to their disorders to their families or even each other, it’s abundantly apparent that they are effected by anorexia and binge eating disorder, respectively. There’s also the issue of Cara’s supposed anorexia, from which she is in recovery. Everything is dropped, never to return again. And yes – it’s not about the food but considering that certain other things were not really brought to conclusion, I can’t imagine how these intense emotions that are expressed through relationships with food would be changed. On the whole, while eating disorders provided a potentially intriguing backdrop for the anguished story of adolescent women, I feel in the end they were a clumsily used trope rather than the expressive vehicles they could have been.