Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter was released in November, but readers should consider this late 2014 title a spring-reading essential. Hunter’s debut novel follows best friends Perry and Baby Girl as they navigate the tricky landscape of adolescence. Perry’s mother is an alcoholic who spends her days nursing hangovers in the trailer park where they live, too often missing work and endangering her marriage to Perry’s stepfather, a decent man and local prison guard. Baby Girl lives with her uncle and brain-damaged older brother, who was once a popular neighborhood bad boy. Ugly Girls tracks the girls through a complicated friendship: they steal cars, skip school, and sneak out at night, testing the boundaries of the barely-there rules imposed on them, and the degree to which they care about themselves and each other.
Perry and Baby Girl are best friends in the sense that they spend a great deal of time together, but from the get-go Hunter depicts a relationship that isn’t rooted on firm ground. The girls are loyal but wary of one another, and share little in common other than unstable home lives and defiant teenage angst. Baby Girl is chubby and resentful of the blonde and pretty Perry. She goes to great lengths to exert control over her feelings by wearing heavy makeup and shaving her head. Perry mostly sees the girls’ behavior as a way to break up the dullness of the day, but for Baby Girl it is a desperate act to rebel against a life that has treated her unfairly; one where bad things happen just because and pretty girls get the boys.
In spite of Baby Girl’s attempts to be standoffish she longs to be liked, so when Jamey — an alleged local high school student — begins messaging her on Facebook, she is drawn in. It soon becomes clear that Jamey is interested in Perry and, unbeknownst to the girls, has been closely stalking them. Jamey’s presence intensifies a growing rift between the friends, pushing Baby Girl farther into her angry spiral and forcing Perry to reconsider the disingenuous nature of her actions. “The triumph Perry had felt the night before, revealing her secret about Jamey, felt shameful now. Worse than the triumph was that she’d needed to show those other women the power she held over Baby Girl. The power she held in the world: men wanted her.”
Hunter is skilled at developing gritty characters who are troubling but sympathetic, and this is true for the secondary cast as well. All of the characters in Ugly Girls act out of self-loathing, an issue they fight against but fail to conquer. For example, Perry thinks of her stepfather: “She wondered did he ever think about putting his hands on her or Myra, shaking them, pushing them, hitting them until he felt better… It made her feel better, thinking of him losing control like that. Like it was possible that everyone had something dark inside them, everyone had something they were barely controlling…”
Hunter’s characters are aware of their flaws and helpless against them, reacting to this awareness with bad and sometimes dangerous behavior, as if they are hoping to shock the situation out of itself. Unfortunately, whether it is a crippling hangover, a teenage arrest, experimenting with hair, makeup, sex—or something worse—the characters in Ugly Girls are pulled farther in the wrong direction. Ultimately, this novel isn’t a story about overcoming odds, but a sad portrayal of characters who never reconcile with their own darkness.
Ugly Girls is a fast read and its plot carries the characters along in a way that feels fresh, even for a bad-girls/troubled-teens story. The lives in this novel converge in a way that is unique and urgent, and dare I say fun to read, despite its gritty content. Hunter began her career as a flash fiction writer and the novel concludes in a way that feels true to those roots. The final chapters are short, at times just a paragraph long, offering conclusions that are slim in word count but perfectly measured. Hunter dazzles with careful plotting and attentive writing. I still think about her characters, wonder about them, and yes, care about their lives.
by Kim Winternheimer