TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:
Shame on me, because “The List” was my first introduction to author Siobhan Vivian, who has written three other novels for teens. If any of her other books are even remotely as captivating and incisive as “The List,” then I need to get on them asap, y’all. Because “The List,” about a yearly list of the ugliest and prettiest girls in one high school, is a total winner. I am still thinking about this book a full week after I finished it!
One Monday in September, Mount Washington High School is plastered with an official, embossed copy of The List, designating which girl is the most and least attractive in each grade. The List is an annual tradition at Mount Washington, and, aside from it bearing a Mount Washington seal, no one knows who is behind it or how the girls are chosen. All anyone knows for sure is that inclusion on The List dramatically changes each girl’s life. What we learn in this novel is that those changes, for the favored and the ostracized both, can be surprisingly complex.
Throughout the novel, we follow the eight girls’ lives as they intersect in the days following publication of The List. Of these eight characters — loners, freaks, popular girls, a homeschooled transfer student, brats, athletes, etc. — four-time ugliest designee Jennifer Briggis is one of the most intriguing. Jennifer was once best friends with the beautiful, popular Margo Gable, who is, of course, the prettiest girl in the senior class. After a freshman year meltdown at being named ugliest, in each succeeding year, Jennifer has tried to make it seem like she’s in on the joke here and thus unbothered by The List. But when Margo’s friends reach out to Jennifer in sympathy and include her in shopping trips and parties, we start to see how clingy and, perhaps, devious this perpetually bullied girl is. It’s shocking stuff, frankly, and one of the most compelling portraits of a teen bullying victim that I’ve ever encountered.
The other girls are depicted in equally nuanced manners. We have freshman swimmer Danielle DeMarco, who had always prided herself on her strength and athleticism but who now sees herself as ugly and mannish. When Danielle’s boyfriend becomes distant and avoidant post-List, Danielle is devastated. She tries to become stereotypically feminine, but ultimately reacts in a more powerful, life-affirming way. Junior Bridget Honeycutt is the most heartbreaking character. Bridget views her “prettiest” label as a validation of the eating disorder she had developed over the summer, and so she plunges headfirst back into the world of starvation and juice “cleanses.” Bridget’s final push to wear a smaller dress size — and her emptiness at achieving this awful goal — is gut wrenching.
Then there’s Sarah Stringer, the ugliest girl in the junior class, who is really just an outsider with a punk edge and a fake aura of toughness. The night before The List’s publication, Sarah had slept with her best friend, the quietly attentive Milo. After The List, Sarah pushes everyone away in just about the most effective manner ever: she stops bathing, brushing her teeth, and changing her clothes. The mythic List makers and popular kids will have to literally suffer her existence. Sarah’s attempt to strike back really amounts to her donning an extra layer of armor in protection against further hurt. When Milo finally breaks through Sarah’s defenses and reaches the vulnerable girl inside … oy! Didn’t I say this was a compelling novel?
Author Vivian perfectly captures the impact of labeling teen girls in both seemingly positive and negative ways, and shows how that labeling can quickly create pressure to fulfill false expectations in either direction. She also expertly conveys the fragility of each girl’s sense of self worth, but never in a didactic fashion. I especially loved the ambiguous ending here. What is the real cost of popularity? Of anonymity? And is either worth it? While there are few neatly tied bows to the individual stories, you will think — A LOT — about each girl long after you’re finished reading. If that’s not the sign of a good book, I don’t know what is.
“The List” is most definitely geared toward high school girls. There is age-appropriate language, some drinking scenes, and sexuality. I wholeheartedly recommend this timely, thought-provoking novel, which will resonate with so many young women. “The List” is out now. Read it!