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Retro Friday Review: Big Mouth & Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time! I include roundups from participating bloggers in my post every week.
The first time I ever heard about Big Mouth & Ugly Girl was on the lovely Shannon Hale's website a few years ago. I was browsing around and ran across a list of her book recommendations. This one was on the YA non-fantasy list and the title caught my eye. So I hunted down a copy at my local bookstore and went home with it. Something about her description of why she liked it made me certain it was worth buying sight unseen. I must have felt strongly because, let's be honest, I would never otherwise have purchased a book with the above left cover. I'm sorry, but it's horrendous. Sort of the definition of unappealing. The one on the right is somewhat better, but still nothing that calls out to me in any way. And, as with so many other of my favorites, this story deserves a cover worthy of it. Not the drab, awkward ones it's gotten thus far. So I hope this review will appeal to some of you enough that you'll look past the puzzling, slightly garish cover and see the gold inside. Because it is most certainly gold and instantly went on my Beloved Bookshelf because of its honest and heartfelt approach to being a teen outsider and the often unfair and complicated ways in which others view you when you don't conform to their model of expectations.



It was an ordinary January afternoon, a Thursday, when they came for Matt Donaghy. They came for him during fifth period, which was Matt's study period, in room 220 of Rocky River High School, Westchester County.
These are the opening lines of the story of Matt Donaghy and Ursula Riggs. On that ordinary day in January the police come to arrest Matt Donaghy. To escort him from school and down to the station on charges that he was planning to blow up the school. Matt is speechless with confusion and fear. He had no such plans. He said no such thing. Or did he? It's impossible to remember. He might have joked about it. Not necessarily in so many words, but he might have. Matt is always joking. You might say he has a big mouth. Big enough, hopefully, to cover up for his shyness, his inability to blend in perfectly with his peers. Then there is Ursula Riggs. Tall, sturdy, with fierce eyes and an unyielding presence, she's on the edges of Rocky River High as well. Everybody knows of her but nobody really knows her. And in her head she is Ugly Girl. Too large and broad and forceful to be accepted, but sure of herself and determined not to be run over by anyone. But Ursula heard what Matt said that day in passing. And she decides she won't let him go to jail for a crime he didn't commit. But will the two outcasts together be able to stand against the fear and the mob mentality that arises in the wake of rumors of a crazy boy and a bomb?

First published in 2002, this is Joyce Carol Oates' first young adult novel and I was impressed to say the least.
 It reminded me of a more "American," if you will, version of Just in Case by Meg RosoffNo less angst, but a little more hope. The two main characters, Matt and Ursula, develop alter egos (see title) which in turn enable them to cope with the shocking events of their junior year. The thing is you will like these two. You will like them from page one. Though skinny and geeky, and prone to skimming along under the radar, Matt is incredibly likable and funny. And Ursula. Well, as Matt would say, Ursula is "1 individual in 1 million." Often brash and abrupt and unconcerned with other people's feelings, she is actually an unusually straight arrow. And her insistence on justice and the perseverance of truth is doggone admirable. What these two accomplish together is heroic. Here is their first conversation:



Twice Matt dialed the number Ursula had given him and twice he hung up quickly before the phone could ring. So damned shy. The third time he dialed, he let the phone ring and it was answered at once. "Hello?" The girl's voice was husky, guarded.


"Hi, this is . . . Matt. Is this Ursula?"


"Yes."


"I . . . got your message."


Matt was speaking in a lowered, shaky voice. He was feeling a leap of irrational hope.


Ursula said, still guardedly, "You know me, I guess? From school?"


"Ursula, sure. Sure I know you."


As if they hadn't been going to the same schools most of their lives.


Ursula said, "This hasn't been such a . . . great day for you, I guess."


"No, but--" Matt paused. He wanted to say, At least I'm home, not in jail. But that wasn't much of a reason to be grateful, considering he hadn't done anything wrong. "--I'm alive, anyway."


Was that meant to be funny? Matt laughed, but Ursula remained silent.


Matt had begun to sweat, this conversation was so pained. He hated calling girls on the phone if he didn't know them really well and if it hadn't been understood, more or less, that he was going to call, and was expected. He was even uneasy sometimes calling his friends. Which was why he liked e-mail. Maybe Ursula Riggs was the same way? Her telephone voice was unexpectedly hesitant, diffident.


Or maybe she just didn't like Matt Donaghy, personally. But had to talk to him for some mysterious reason.


Ursula began speaking rapidly, as if her words were prepared. "Look, Matt. I heard what you said in the cafeteria today. I was walking past your table, and I heard. I know you were joking, and there's no way any intelligent person could misconstrue your words or gestures. If it's taken out of context, maybe, but there was a context. And I can be a witness for you. I'll go to Mr. Parrish first thing tomorrow and talk to him. Or the police, if necessary."


By the end of this speech, Ursula was speaking vehemently. Matt wasn't sure he'd heard right. Witness? He felt like a drowning swimmer whose flailing hand has been grabbed by someone, a stranger, whose face he can't see.


He said, stammering, "You . . . heard me? You know I didn't . . . wasn't . . ."


"A friend of mine, Eveann McDowd, was with me. She heard you, too. I'll talk to her."


"You'd--be a witness for me, Ursula? Gosh."


Ursula said quickly, "You've been falsely accused. I'd do it for anybody." She added," I mean--even somebody I didn't like."


Matt was too confused to absorb what Ursula Riggs seemed to be saying. That she liked him? All he could say was to repeat, "Thanks, Ursula. I--really appreciate it."


"You're the only person who's contacted me, Ursula," Matt added impulsively. "I'm a pariah, I guess--is that the word? Like leper. Outcast." When Ursula didn't reply, Matt said, "I've been suspended for 'at least three day.' Till they can investigate me."


"Investigate you? They're the ones who should be investigated."


Ursula Riggs spoke so heatedly, it was as if, suddenly, she was in Matt's room with him and Pumpkin.

Don't you want to stick with them and find out if she's right? If together they can face down The Man and win? This is a particularly timely tale, I think, with two painfully real protagonists that dare you to drift away and forget them after the story itself is over. Recommended for fans of Courtney Summers and Meg Rosoff.

Retro Friday Roundup

Comments

  1. I've already read this one too! And I actually read it in Spanish. o.O (and the cover my spanish copy had was also MUCH more appealing to look at than the cover on the left-Oy.)

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  2. Stop making me add books to my wishlist!! ;)

    I've seen this before, and I like JCO (admire her a LOT), but the cover just never appealed to me. And there are so many other books to read. And I prefer fantasy to contemporary, overall...

    But! You sold it to me, dude. *g*

    Kaz

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  3. Dang it Angie! Just when I'm getting the TBR pile under control you go and post a review like this one. Sheesh.

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  4. "Don't judge a book by its cover" definitely applies to this title, but your review put it on my reading list. I look forward to meeting Ursula's unfiltered attitude.

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  5. I purchased the book with this cover - way back when. I didn't used to be such a cover whore. The book blogosphere has converted me.

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  6. You have done it again, woman! grrrr....

    *ponders where to build more bookcases*











    *ponders where to find the money to get more books* ;-)

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  7. I love Meg Rosoff's writing, I might have a few issues with the rhythm of her novels but her style is superb.
    Yesterday I bought Black Girl / White Girl by Oates mainly because I heard a lot about her...this morning I saw your post, I'll see how it goes with this one I have and If I find it interesting I will check her ya novel Big Mouth & Ugly Girl

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  8. Joyce Carol Oates is kind of a genius.

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  9. I love JCO but had no idea she wrote young adult books (I guess ManCrazy is kind of YA). And I do want to stick with them, they sound like such a misunderstood pair.

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