Everything Beautiful, by Simmone Howell

Everything Beautiful, by Simmone Howell (Bloomsbury, 2008, 272 pp, coming this November).

When this book opens, there is nothing beautiful about the life of Riley Rose. Since the death of her mother, two years before, Riley has become a bad girl--eating, drinking, smoking, cursing, and getting laid. Her father's relationship with Norma, isn't helping her much either--Norma is Christian, and critical, and raises Riley's hackles in just about every other way possible. Because of Norma's machinations, Riley finds herself an apparent prisoner at Spirit Ranch, a Christian Camp. There she is--a fat, smoking, angry atheist being encouraged to sing happy religious songs. Only she has a bus ticket home hidden away, if she chooses to escape.

At first this seems like the only sane thing to do, but her desire to escape wanes as she gets to know Dylan, returning to camp after an accident that has left him in a wheelchair. His dedication to Badness matches her own, culminating in a wild ride together into the Australian Outback in a stolen car. This passionate act of defiance ends up leading Riley back to a belief that love exists, to the acknowledgement of beauty, and to cathartic tears for her mother's death.

It does not, incidentally, end with Riley either embracing or outright rejecting Christianity, something I was worried about (as a reader, not as a person)--the ambiguity of her state of mind is a much more satisfactory ending. I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy spending a week at a fictional Christian camp as seen through the eyes of a hostile narrator, and I was not sure at all I was going to like Riley enough to want to keep going with her story. But although at first the camp Christians seemed like caricatures, and not very nice ones, they become (generally) more three-dimensional; some are even likable. And it turns out that the camp and its strange denizens were exactly the catalyst that Riley needed in order to slough off the bad-girl shell she had adopted. I ended up liking her, and wishing her well.

This is definitely one for the tougher reader--strong language, sex, drinking, drugs, etc.

Here's another review, at Becky's Book Reviews.

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