by Kirsten Hubbard
Releases on 03.08.2011
Random House Children's Books/Delacorte
Source: book blog tour loan
REVIEW: I didn't just read this book; I absolutely devoured it. Like Mandarin is the stuff of what a teenage girl's life is made of: a whirlwind of jealousy, desire, ambition, low self-esteem, adventure, betrayal and acceptance, and not a bit of it is written in a shallow way. Whether you've been the odd girl out, that girl, or somewhere in between, this is a book that will have you thinking about the importance of relationships among females: how we get into them, how they shape us, support us and rip us down.
Yeah, you could says she's lonely.
Enter Mandarin Ramey. She's 17, also alone, but prefers it that way. She doesn't give two cents about what anyone thinks of her. She's promiscuous, openly defiant, has a reputation for fighting, and the only thing she does is exactly what she wants. She's the Angelina Jolie of her school, and no one knows it better than Grace:
Once the friendship ignites, what follows is Grace walking on a tightrope to keep Mandarin 'happy' and 'interested' in her. If that sounds like more like a romance, then you kind of/sort of have it right. Grace immerses herself into Mandarin's personality exactly like a lovestruck girl does over the guy of her dreams. Except that Grace doesn't harbor romantic feelings for Mandarin; it's much more a tale of wanting to be her, so much so that Grace studies the way that Mandarin walks, holds herself and dresses. What Grace doesn't realize is how very damaged and fragile Mandarin is. . . and, like all wounded creatures, Mandarin is also unpredictable and manipulative. She puts Grace through little quirky conversation tests, and very much adopts a, "if you're not with me, you're against me" attitude when it comes to Grace. However, while the turbulent friendship between Grace and Mandarin takes center stage, the book is really about all sorts of different relationships between women: teenagers, middle-agers, mother-daughter (or lack thereof), there's even a teacher-student relationship for Grace. Hubbard does an excellent job of showing how these different relationships shape who we are, and how past and present ones can help lead us to our new ones.
Then there are the characters, and all of you know how much I love a character-driven book! Grace is definitely her own person, although she doesn't think enough of herself to be it sometimes, especially not when a twister of a character like Mandarin enters the scene. DO NOT get her mixed up with the vapid, feel free to [insert yourself] female protagonists that we sometimes are confronted with in YA lit. Grace is intelligent and knows what she wants in her future, but loneliness does funny things to people, and it's easy to get sidetracked when you are 14. Mandarin is an incredibly well-drawn character, although it does take time for vulnerability to show through, but her magnetism is palpable through the pages (I think we've all known a Mandarin-type). At times, she felt one part Rizzo from Grease, one part Dicey Tillerman from The Tillerman Family Cycle and one part Stepmother from Cinderella. She's extremely complex, and any answers you get about her mysteries are hard-won and bitterly bequeathed.
Besides the two main characters, the ones you will see the most of are Grace's mother and younger sister, Taffeta. Grace's mom is a very definite sort of person and lives vicariously through Taffeta's success on the beauty pageant circuit. Grace feels forever worthless in her eyes do an incident that happened almost eight years ago that crushed her mother's hopes for her. Mother Dear also has the unfortunate characteristic of phrasing things precisely so they simultaneously shame you, but also leave little room for argument. On the other hand, Taffeta might be the most intelligent six year-old I've ever read, and if there is one fault that I can find with the book, it's that she sometimes seemed more like a ten year-old, rather than a small child in kindergarten.
I cannot begin to tell you what a good writer Hubbard is. . . when I read the synopsis, I was like, ehhhh, this could go either way. Well, it went all the way to the brilliant side of the scale. Hubbard writes with simple elegance, but there is always this feeling of constantly being carried forward. You aren't rushed, but you are anxious to read what happens next. Normally, I will drift through a book this size over a couple of evenings, but all of the sudden, I realized that I had far more pages held in my left hand than in my right. It was a pleasant surprise and a testament to how smoothly the book moves along. And in case you were wondering if you can have good time in Smalltown, Wyoming, hold on: Grace and Mandarin show you how it's done. For a place that most of us likely are not famaliar with, Kirsten does a wonder of world building, and I don't doubt that Washokey is the beautiful, barren landscarpe with splaces of color and high winds that Grace so vividly describes for us.
You're not going to find any romance or nookie in this book, although the boys do try. What are you going to find is a path that most of us travel at one point: the area of our lives where friends can overrun our affection for family and sense-of-self. Where living in the moment and thrill of getting caught was all you needed for a good time. When you finally learned to look at people and saw them from precisely who they are, and not just who they are in relation to you. Like Mandarin is a beautiful debut, an exquisitely written book about the people, places and emotions that hold us down, and the ones that urge us forward. I can't recommend it enough.
BONUS: The Like Mandarin trailer debuted TODAY - it's exclusively at Stacked - go check it out!
FTC: I received this ARC book on loan from a Book Blog Tour organizer (Banned Books Tours) to read and give my honest opinion. In no way was I compensated for my review.