Robert Beveridge's Reviews > Big Mouth and Ugly Girl

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates
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Jan 22, 08

bookshelves: finished, cle-pub-lib
Read in January, 2004

Joyce Carol Oates, Big Mouth and Ugly Girl (Harper, 2002)

Okay, I admit it. I'm a sucker for books like this. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl into pickle. Boy gets girl out of pickle. Boy gets pickle into girl. They all live happily ever after.

Now turn that formula on its head.

Big Mouth is Matt Donaghy, class clown. Popular guy, suddenly arrested one afternoon as a suspect in a bomb scare. Ugly Girl is Ursula Riggs, captain of the basketball team, anything but popular, a witness to the events surrounding Matt being a suspect. As with many high school kids, Ursula and Matt know each other by sight, but have never really talked. Still, Ursula feels compelled to go to Matt's defense, immediately sparking rumors that the two of them are an item. Which is ludicrous, right? Despite Ursula's growing feelings for Matt, that seem to be reciprocated when she can pull her head out of her posterior long enough to notice.

In other words, your basic coming of age novel. Which is all well and good but, well, this is Joyce Carol Oates we're talking about. And this is the first Oates novel I've read that's missing the common Oates (and Rosamond Smith, too) thread-the overwhelming sense of dread and despair that culminates in the horror of human tragedy. The house burning in Beasts. The child molestation in Cybele. The son killing his father in A Garden of Earthly Delights. Teddy Kennedy plunging off the Chappaquiddick bridge in Black Water. Oates novels end with a massive display of human-tragedy fireworks, don't they? Well, they all have up till now. Oates fans will be expecting the other shoe to drop, and will likely be sorely disappointed.

Not to say the ending that's here is bad, it's just, well, somewhat predictable.

What is classic Oates in this novel are the characters and their development. Oates is a master at subtleties of character, and Ursula Riggs is one of the most real high school students to come along in a novel in a very long time. She alone is worth the price of admission, all the other good stuff is just icing on the cake. ***
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