Monday, July 26, 2010

REVIEW: Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

Hard-hitting, page-turning and celebratory of friendship in unlikely circumstances, Joyce Carol Oates' sure touch with small town life hits home in her first young adult novel. Matt Donaghy is the class joker, and Ursula Riggs is the misfit loner. Neither knows the other. But when Matt is suddenly arrested on a charge of threatening to blow up the school and massacre the students, Ursula is the only one who sees through the hysteria and hypocrisy, and corroborates Matt's story. The case is dropped, but Matt's old friends avoid him, and his teachers treat him with kid gloves. Even Ursula, apparently his only friend during the crisis, can't meet his eye. But Ursula can't remain aloof when she catches Matt contemplating suicide -- and a strange friendship is born.

I really enjoyed Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. I picked it up, kind of on a whim after reading another of Joyce Carol Oates' YA novels last year, After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, And Flew Away. I thought it might also tie in with Jo's Body Image and Self-Perception month.

Ursula and Matt are two very different people but seem to be on a collision course towards each other. Matt's very jokey and likes to make people laugh. Which is why it comes as such a shock to him when someone takes what his joke about blowing up the school seriously and reports him. Soon, everything changes as his big mouth gets him in trouble. His friends avoid and ignore him, his teachers and everyone else are starting to treat him differently. If it weren't for Ursula standing up for him and telling the truth about what happened, Matt would have gotten into a lot more trouble. As it is, he's already on the brink of doing something drastic.

Ursula, on the other hand, is a very strong girl. She's big and tall and knows her own mind. She doesn't mind doing things that are different from other girls her age, she doesn't mind, really, that nobody likes her. She's Ugly Girl after all, star basketball player. She isn't going to change her ways for anyone. Her height and her attitude make her stand out, and that's OK. Because she can handle it. But she can see how her little sister Lisa is struggling with the pressures of being a ballerina and her weight and Ursula needs to be strong for Lisa, set a good example.

I really loved both the characters. And at the time of reading it, I was absolutely dying during the long wait in the book for Matt and Ursula to finally connect with each other. It was done so well. Ursula's perception of herself as 'Ugly Girl' made my heart hurt. I loved the perspectives of both parents as they tried to protect their children throughout and do what they thought was right for each child. Joyce Carol Oates had a great message in this book about responsibility and friendship, image and standing up for what's right. She's a bit scathing in her attitude towards the huge proportions that a joke is blown up into (pun intended!) and I'm really glad that I read it.

Have you read anything by Joyce Carol Oates that you can recommend for me to read next?


  1. This is an excellent review! I really would never have thought of picking up this book but have now added it to my wish list.

    Thanks so much for all the fantastic comments you have just left on my blog - I really appreciate you sitting and reading through all those reviews (I would do the same for you but a bad back is preventing me from sitting at the computer for too long right now!). It's always great to find another UK blogger and also another mum! Look forward to following your posts from now on x

  2. Great review! I've never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates before, but I think I will start with this! I really think I would enjoy it.

  3. Some very strong characterisation in this novel! I haven't read anything from the author yet, will take note on my radar though!


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