Every year at Mount Washington High School, an anonymous list gets posted. On it, eight girls–two from each grade–are ranked as the prettiest and the ugliest in their grade. It doesn’t really matter who made the list, because once it’s posted, the damage is done. This year, eight girls will find their names on the list and will discover that their lives are forever altered. As they discover what it is to be named, they also begin to discover what appearances mean–and what they don’t.
Siobhan Vivian’s insightful novel about the link between physical appearance and status is powerful, memorable, and upsetting. Written in third person present, Vivian’s novel follows all eight girls in rotating chapters as they navigate the week after the list comes out. While this sort of loose grouping of narratives wouldn’t work in a lesser author’s hands, it does in Vivian’s. Each girl has a distinct voice and is well-characterized. This is a book that readers won’t be able to put down.
Vivian’s exploration of what happens to each of these girls after the list is published is what drives the story, and it is also what is most compelling here. Each girl has a different reaction to what has occurred, and while some of the reactions are expected, others are not: junior Sara’s decision to be as dirty and ugly as possible is by far one of the novel’s most compelling story arcs. So too is junior Bridget’s as she devolves further into an eating disorder. What is remarkable is Vivian’s ability to make each girl completely sympathetic and absolutely authentic in voice and action.
Sophisticated, savvy readers will also appreciate the subtlety that Vivian creates in her prose. Nothing is completely laid out for readers, and Vivian is never overly-didactic with her message. She allows the characters’ actions to speak for themselves, and the story is all the richer as a result. Even tertiary characters are given dimension: Vivian does such a wonderful job with the girls’ mothers that I found myself staying up late into the night thinking about them and what happened to them in their respective youths.
This is a book that begs to be read and discussed, and as a result would be a great novel for book groups. Teens and adults alike are going to want to talk about the characters and the events in this one. The novel opens up all sorts of topics, including femininity, feminism, physical appearance, eating disorders, and the bonds of friendship. Highly, highly recommended. One of my favorite reads of 2012.
The List by Siobhan Vivian. Push: 2012. Library copy.