Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Big Mouth & Ugly Girl" by Joyce Carol Oates

Summary: Matt Donaghy, a popular high-school student, is thrown into turmoil when a joke he makes at lunch is reported as a violent threat on the school. Although cleared of the charges, Matt finds himself ostracized and withdrawing from school life until he finds solace with Ursula Riggs, a truculent, intimidating girl who is universally feared and disliked.

Musings: The book has a basic premise (two opposite kids suddenly finding each other) with contemporary commentary thrown in (hysteria over school shootings). Matt seems like a typical kid: smart, well-liked, but unable to stand on his own when he finds himself outside the mainstream school culture. Ursula is like no kid I’ve ever known, which perhaps made her the more difficult character of the two for me to empathize with. She uses her size and attitude to mask personal unease.

The characters’ emotions felt authentic, and the book does a nice job describing how quickly relationships can turn, particularly in a high school setting. The budding relationship between Matt and Ursula is slow, but sweet.

The book ends happily but still leaves some lingering questions. Matt and Ursula have found connections with each other, and have each started to renew some old friendships, but they’re not able to be friends with other people together. I think there’s certainly some real truth in that.

Although only written in 2002, the text feels a bit dated, especially concerning the characters’ clothing and method of communication (I doubt my kids have ever emailed one another—they barely know how to use it—it’s all text messaging these days).

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