Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review - Like Mandarin

Kirsten Hubbard
Random House Children's Books
Fifteen-year-old Grace is living in the suffocating badlands of Wyoming with her pageant-obsessed mother and super-talented younger sister. There's no beauty to be found, except for the beauty of Mandarin Ramey: wild child, town slut, and the one person Grace would most like to be like. Unlike smart and studious Grace, Mandarin is wild and carefree, a girl the whole town talks about but nobody really knows. When Mandarin asks to be partnered with Grace for a school project, the two form an unlikely friendship. Grace changes the way she dresses, walks, and thinks in order to be more like Mandarin, but the girl everybody talks about has secrets that nobody knows, and they make her more vulnerable than Grace expects. As their friendship and plans for escape grows more serious, Grace begins to wonder about the girl she's come to call her best friend and in doing so she discovers a stronger side of herself -- one she never knew existed.

I'm such a sucker for tales of complicated friendships and this one does an excellent job of setting up a friendship that, while far from perfect, is realistic and doesn't unfold in quite the way you'd expect. Grace's feelings for Mandarin are an infatuation of the non-sexual kind -- it's a total girl crush, sure, but this goes beyond that. Her long-standing obsession enters an uncomfortable territory, but luckily this fades as she gets to know Mandarin as a person and not just her ideal. The characters themselves are well-developed, but for a fourteen-going-on-fifteen year old girl, Grace seemed almost too mature for her age. I had a hard time remembering she was only fifteen and not seventeen or eighteen.

The narrative is slow moving and incredibly atmospheric. Grace and Mandarin's hometown of Washokey, Wyoming is a character in itself and the book opens up with one of the most incredible, setting-heavy first lines ever. In the beginning the heavy amount of description made me a little lethargic, but around page 75 the story really begins and though the description remains heavy throughout, the pace picks up. As someone who absolutely adores books with a strong setting, I admit that I had mixed reactions to this one and it may have had something to do with the (very authentic) split between what the main characters said and what they did. Both Grace and Mandarin proclaim to hate their small hometown, but it's obvious that this town is very much a part of them and sometimes their protests have a ring of falseness because of this. On the one hand, this is an incredibly authentic and real thing: where we grow up, love it or hate it, becomes a part of us. On the other hand, however, it did make me a little annoyed with the girls at times.

One of the most important relationships in the book is the one Grace shares with her mother. After quitting pageants as a child, Grace's once-close relationship with her mom was damaged to the point that they now barely speak. However, the deep and conflicting love they have for the other one is always present. Her mother is an incredibly fleshed-out character and to be honest I loved the story of Grace and her mother more than the story of Grace and Mandarin. I'm glad it's such a big part of the novel.

The ending here seems incredibly fitting to me and though at times this book seemed to drag on or I got annoyed with Grace, the positives here far outweigh the negatives. For readers looking for a complex story of friendship and family with a hefty dose of western setting, this is your book. It's a strong, multi-layered debut novel that deserves a spot on your shelves.


  1. This is an excellent, thoughtful review (as usual). I've been looking forward to this one for a while, and your review has given me new things to think about when I tackle it.

  2. I've been hearing slightly mixed things about this one, but it sounds so interesting. I may have to try it out.