Joyce Carol Oates’ first novel for young adults is
about two 16-year-olds in a New Jersey High School, in Rocky River, in the rich
sprawling suburbs around New York City.
Matt Donaghy is a joker, and one day at lunch he jokes about blowing up
the high school. He is reported to the
authorities, and he is taken out of class, arrested, and questioned by
suspicious police. He is soon exonerated,
but he is shaken to the core by this experience. He gives up the regular column and his job as editor at the
school newspaper and resigns his position as class vice-president. He becomes isolated and bitter once he
realizes that his so-called friends were not ready to stand by him in his time
Ursula Riggs was captain of the
basketball team, but she lost an important game for them, and in disgust at
herself, she resigns and becomes even more of a loner. She calls herself “Ugly Girl” and writes
about herself in the third person. She
was the only one who stood up for Matt when he was arrested, and this brings
the two teens together, slowly but surely, as they exchange e-mails.
The story is full of social
commentary about the life in the suburbs where the students worry about getting
into Ivy League schools and there’s hysteria about possible school
violence. The chapters are written
alternately by Matt and Ursula, and on the unabridged
audiobook these are read by Chad Lowe and Hilary Swank, who do a fine
job. Oates conveys Matt’s sense of
betrayal and his sense of desperation, and Ursula’s strength of character, as
well as the evident pleasure of the two as they become friends and then more
than friends. There’s adventure here
too, although it’s not particularly exciting.
Big Mouth & Ugly Girl compares well with most of the other
books aimed at the young adult market, but it does not provide any striking
insights into high school angst. Maybe
young adults should try reading adult books.
web page for audiobook with Real Audio excerpt.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring
how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help
foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the