Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard
March 8, 2011; Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers
It's hard finding beauty in the badlands of Washokey, Wyoming, but 14-year-old Grace Carpenter knows it's not her mother's pageant obsessions, or the cowboy dances adored by her small-town classmates. True beauty is wild-girl Mandarin Ramey: 17, shameless and utterly carefree. Grace would give anything to be like Mandarin. When they're united for a project, they form an unlikely, explosive friendship, packed with nights spent skinny-dipping in the canal, liberating the town's animal-head trophies, and searching for someplace magic. Grace plays along when Mandarin suggests they run away together. Blame it on the crazy-making wildwinds plaguing their Badlands town. Because all too soon, Grace discovers Mandarin's unique beauty hides a girl who's troubled, broken, and even dangerous. And no matter how hard Grace fights to keep the magic, no friendship can withstand betrayal. (courtesy of Goodreads)
Have you ever had a crush on a girl? I'm not talking about a romantic crush, but rather pure idolization and adoration. You want to be her. She lights up the world around her. Her clothes are unbearably hip. Her attitude, intelligence, and humor are so much cooler than yours. She's confident and doesn't let the world get her down. That's the basic premise of Like Mandarin.
Mardarin is so much cooler than plain-Jane Grace. Even her name is exotic. To the rest of Grace's rural Wyoming town, Mandarin is the bad girl. The local slut who the teenage girls sneer at, the teenage boys dream about, and the mothers steer their children away from. In Grace's mind, though, Mandarin is a symbol of escape. A path away from her pageant-obsessed mother and her narrow-minded neighbors and classmates. Grace wants to be like Mandarin.
When Mandarin graces Grace with her presence, Grace's life completely changes. She basks in Mandarin's light. For awhile. But Mandarin's light is heavily shaded with darkness. Grace slowly begins to understand that Mandarin may be night more than she is day.
Like Mandarin was a frustrating novel. On the up side, it was beautifully written. Hubbard's prose is full of detail. She does an especially wonderful job of describing the beauty and barrenness of rural Wyoming, as well as the stifling nature of a small town with its narrow-mindedness and endless gossip. The plot flows smoothly, easily mixing Grace and Mandarin's adventures with Grace's inner turmoil and her family drama. I also loved how well I came to understand the characters, Grace and Mandarin in particular. There was never a moment where I was hit over the head with a description of their personalities. Instead, Grace's thoughts and both girls' actions illuminated their characters.
The down side isn't a bad thing, per se. You could argue it's a good thing. I quickly liked, sympathized with, and pitied Grace. It was difficult to watch a girl that I cared for hang out with Mandarin. The reader could see past Grace's infatuation of Mandarin's coolness almost immediately. It was clear that Mandarin, while not a bad person, was a very troubled young woman. And she was leading Grace away from a steady path of success toward disaster.
It was hard to read Grace continue to make bad decisions to be more like Mandarin. I had to ration the pages I read, because I got so depressed. I didn't trust that she would see the light of day, because Grace was almost as messed up as Mandarin. The product of a young, single mother who cared only about pageants, Grace was raised with subtle hints that she was unlovable and worthless ever since she purposely screwed up her last pageant at age six. Not surprisingly, she had zero self-esteem and quickly lost sight of herself in the hopes of being like Mandarin. I spent much of the book vacillating between wanting to give Grace a hug and wanting to slap her upside the head.
Like Mandarin is a beautiful, but difficult book to read. The characters came to life to the extent that I felt personally invested in their choices. In the end, the plot arc is relatively predictable, but the journey there is an up and down roller coaster ride.