Powerful is the best word I can think of to describe this book. Through the different, overlapping stories of the eight girls, many different topics are covered. There's Jennifer and Margo -- the senior girls named ugliest and prettiest, who used to be best friends. There's Candace, who's named ugliest not because of her outsides, but because she has, as her friends put it, "always been a bitch." Lauren, the homeschool girl thrust into popularity by being named the prettiest sophomore. Abby, the freshman girl honored to be named prettiest although she feels bad for Danielle, the swimmer, whose new nickname is "Dan the Man" thanks to her inclusion on the ugly side of the list. And then, of course, Bridget, for whom being named prettiest junior only makes her life harder, and Sarah, the ugly girl who decides to fully embrace the label. These girls aren't nice. They aren't mean. They're a little bit of both, often in extremes. While most of them aren't girls I'd want to be like or want to be friends with, there's an undeniable reality to them that cuts right to the core.
I might not like these girls, but I can relate to them. As a girl, no matter how old you are, it's easy to put yourself in their position and ask yourself if you'd make the list -- and if so, what side? The ways they react feel fitting even in their extremity because this is an extreme situation. When I went to a panel with author Siobhan Vivian at the LA Times Festival of Books, her fellow author Jessi Kirby said that in high school, these are actually the highest stakes imaginable. And it's true: for these eight girls, their identity is stripped down to that one word: ugly. Or pretty. The question of who's behind the list runs in the background of the story, but much more important and pressing is the different ways the list affects the girls. I'd love to get into the details and talk about how much I hurt for Bridget, or how strongly I felt about Margo and Jennifer's intersecting storylines, but that would make this review so much longer than even I am comfortable with. So instead I'll say this: I'm 22. I've never had very big self-image issues. Body image has never been something I've struggled with. And even so, reading this book wrecked me in a way. Because it was so easy to see, even for me, how being on the list could ruin you -- reduce you not just in other people's eyes, but also in your own. And I hurt for the girls in this book, no matter who they were or how they reacted or even if I liked them. I wanted to hug them, tell them they would be okay even if that might take years and years.
For a contemporary YA novel that takes place over the span of just one week, it's amazing how much my opinion of these eight girls changed. There were girls I hated in the beginning that I ended up liking so much. And there were girls I liked in the beginning that, by the end, were so definitely on my short list. The relationships between the characters became clearer as the story went on and though I wanted a little more to the ending, this is undeniably one of the more powerful books I've read. It tackles huge topics -- body-image, but also friendship and perception and self-respect -- and handles them so well, so realistically. Honestly, it's hard not to feel a bit sucker-punched by this one, and that's a good thing.