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Saturday, February 07, 2009

EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL By Simmone Howell. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2008

Riley Rose is stuck at Spirit Ranch Holiday Camp, just when she was about to get close and personal with that hunk Ben. It’s filled with Christian teenagers and camp counsellors who blow bugles at you and make you sing around camp fires, when you’re not memorising Bible quotes or having presentations on the domestic life of the mallee fowl.

Of course, there’s the very hunkish Craig, but he’s not all he seems. Besides, he’s with Riley’s room-mate Fleur and Fleur is not about to share. Then there’s Dylan, who used to be Craig’s friend and equally good-looking, before an accident left him in a wheelchair. He’s back at camp, but no one seems sure what the accident actually was, and he’s not saying.

And Riley has her own issues, centred party, at least, around her mother’s death from cancer, her father’s new partner and her own overweight state.

There’s an entire genre of fiction about a wilderness camp and a troubled teenager who finds answers there, despite being originally reluctant to go. I have reviewed one, Solo by Alyssa Brugman, in the last year. This one isn’t quite as grim as Solo, although it’s also readable and broken into easily-digestible short chapters.

Riley has issues to sort out, but she also has things to teach the other campers, even those who mock her weight and call her a slut. That is perhaps less common in summer camp fiction. Before the novel is over, she is also feeling sympathy even for the worst of them, which helps her. And the beautiful Ben, when he appears, is a comical character rather than the hunk she remembers.

I do have a nitpick or two. Dylan’s accident turns out to have been far less dramatic than was implied at the start and has no real bearing on the story. It would be okay if the issue was about how he handles his confinement to a wheelchair, but he seems to have sorted out most of that before the story begins. I can sort of see why the author plays around with the possible reasons for the accident, but for me, it didn’t quite work.

Still, Riley is a likeable, sympathetic character and the novel makes some serious points in a humorous context. Teenage girls will enjoy it, whether or not they follow it up by seeking out Thomas More’s Utopia, which is quoted throughout the book.