Book review: Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter

Two teens face a stalker and deal with their own failings in a richly detailed debut.
Ugly Girls, Lindsay Hunter
By Tiffany Gibert |
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By Lindsay Hunter. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25

What are the limits of the power of beauty? Can interior, psychic disfigurement leak its way outward into physical homeliness? They’re good questions, ageless questions that Lindsay Hunter addresses in her riveting first novel through the friendship of two girls. Perry and Baby Girl neatly fulfill the archetypes of the beauty and the sidekick—at least, on the outside. Perry, with blond hair and deep green eyes, and Baby Girl, with a pudgy waistline and brown-lined lips, may appear dissimilar, but in a voice-driven narrative that jumps perspective among the girls, Perry’s parents and a haunting male figure, Hunter, quickly and deftly level out the characters’ psychological conditions. As Perry realizes—or rather, silently hopes—late in the novel, “Everyone had something dark inside them, everyone had something they were barely controlling.”

We soon learn that Perry and Baby Girl have attracted the attention of the same boy, an unknown teen named Jamey who chats with them persistently on Facebook and charms their mangled egos. Only we as readers know that Jamey is a thirtysomething stalker who lives in Perry’s trailer park and has already been imprisoned for statutory rape. Jamey’s attentions give the novel its traditional rise and fall and its greatest moments of tension as Perry and Baby Girl confront each other about this admirer and make plans to meet him. But if the story suffers from anything, it’s too much reliance on the forced drama of a dangerous persona. Instead, Hunter’s prose shines in the moments of weakness, guilt and admission that arise in each character’s thoughts and their interactions with each other. Perry’s live-and-let-live mother hopes her daughter appreciates her youth and allure, even if that means treading dangerous lines. During his shift as a prison guard, Perry’s stepfather relies on inflicting terror to ease his private pains. And Baby Girl, repeatedly, faces her assumed role of “Perry’s goon.”

Persisting through these moments of self-hatred and near-constant regret is the notion that, of course, the girls aren’t ugly at all. But the ways they are categorized and idolized by men—being told to go home to sleep in curlers, being called “blondie”—make them crave ugliness. And they only have each other for comfort—a codependent relationship if there ever was one. Jamey’s role as the threatening presence aside, Hunter constructs a magnificently well-wrought and honest portrait of how assumptions and stereotypes can erode any spirit down to worthlessness. There’s great sadness in the novel, but rather than emphasize it, Hunter draws us in to the girls’ friendship, a place where we can join them for a late-night joyride and embrace our own darkness until the sun comes up.

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