“Pink” by Lili Wilkinson

22 Feb


"Pink" is an Australian import, originally published Down Under in 2009 and recently released in this country by one of my favorite teen publishing houses, HarperTeen. In the interest of full disclosure, I read "Pink" primarily for two reasons:

(1) The goth girl / girly girl lip cover. Look below. It rocks!
(2) There are so few teen novels with a bisexual main character, so I was dying to see how author Lili Wilkinson portrays what still seems like a taboo subject in teen literature. (Which, FYI, it really shouldn't be taboo.)

What I found is a funny, witty, heartfelt story about a high school student who transfers to a private school to reinvent herself. Gone is black haired, loner Ava, the one with acerbic goth girlfriend Chloe and no interest in school activities; in her place, we have pink cashmere sweater Ava, she of the lustrous brown hair, impractical shoes, and a sudden interest in both the school musical and one of its handsome lead actors. Much of this story is about Ava's desire to be someone else, someone more like Alexis, the cute, perfect, popular girl who immediately befriends her. Following Alexis' lead, Ava tries out for the school musical (a gangster show called "Bang! Bang!"), with disastrous results. Wanting so much to belong to the theater crowd, even tangentially, Ava joins Screw, the unpopular stage crew composed of lovably geeky misfits like nerdy Trekker Jen, sweet schlump Jacob, gay (with an h!) performer Jules, and ginger-haired wiseguy Sam.

So that's basically the story. Ava reluctantly becomes friends with the Screw kids, while trailing after Alexis and her crowd whenever she can. She hooks up a few times with gorgeous actor Ethan, but it's all a lot of work being perfect for the popular kids, hiding Chloe, her bisexuality, and pretty much her entire life. She also sort of, maybe, kind of starts feeling something for Sam, the outcast Screw leader who challenges her at every turn.

The lessons here go down gently. We learn that many of the other characters — Sam, Jen, Alexis, Ethan — are also hiding their own painful secrets. But none of these revelations are done in a horribly heavy handed, after school special manner. The themes of acceptance and being true to yourself are usually conveyed in a charming, enjoyable way. Trust me, this is so not an issues book!

Instead, "Pink" is breezy and very readable, with plenty of humorous moments provided by the Screw kids. I loved the sense of camaraderie among the Screw members; these were the truest, most fully developed friendships in the book. By comparison, it was hard for me to understand why Ava twisted herself around for boring, toothy Ethan and nihilistic, one-note (that note being bitchy) Chloe. Both characters felt incredibly empty — almost impersonal — to me, while the Screw kids and Ava were leaping off the page with complexity. While I appreciate the efforts to show some vulnerability and soften Ethan and Chloe, for me, they just never progressed beyond cardboard stereotypes. Unlike Alexis, Sam, Jen, and many of the other characters, neither Chloe nor Ethan ever seemed real, and so I had a hard time caring about or understanding Ava's attraction to either of them.

Because of that vacuum at the center of the story, Ava's explorations of her bisexuality seem more discussed than actually explored. Yes, she considers / ponders / analyzes the issue, but it remains mostly a cerebral exercise. And, since Sam is so beautifully shaded — he can be sweet, sullen, charming, shy, boisterous — it is natural for us readers to favor him in any romantic triangle. We just know him better. Having said that, the romance angle largely goes nowhere. I was disappointed in how "Pink" ultimately shies away from really embracing Ava's bisexuality. The love story ends on a vague, unsatisfying note, with some cliched lines about life being messy and confusing and that no one should ever force you to choose. Yes, bisexuality is a perfectly normal orientation that should be accepted like all the others. We can shout that one from the rooftops until the rest of the world understands! But in a novel about one bisexual teenager, I need a more definitive conclusion. I was let down by the ending, plain and simple.

Don't get me wrong. I'd still recommend "Pink." It's a fun, often lighthearted romp that touches upon some universal issues of identity, acceptance, understanding, and friendship. The pages fly by and, with the exceptions discussed above, the characters have plenty of depth and the ability to convey genuine emotion. They will draw you in! The screwball antics at the "Bang! Bang!" show and the gross-out "would you rather" games played by the Screw kids provide plenty of levity and lots of laughs. "Pink" is a book that I can see being read by many high school girls, regardless of their sexual orientation, since it has wide appeal (and, again, that killer cover). I just feel the potential was here for this novel to have been so much more.

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Posted by on February 22, 2011 in Uncategorized


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