Ordinary Beauty by Laura Weiss was published by MTV Books in 2011. I bought this book a few years ago when I was given a Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas and have just now gotten around to reading it! So goes the life of a book collector and frequent library user — so much to read, so little time.
Since I’ve finally taken Ordinary Beauty off of my “to-be-read” list, today I’ll be sharing a review with you and exploring whether or not this book would make for a good film adaptation.
The novel follows Sayre Bellavia, a teenager who has had a rough life. She’s a few months shy of her 18th birthday, but she’s been taking care of herself for years. She’s unable to rely on her mother, who became pregnant as a teenager and has struggled with addiction.
Living with one of her mother’s ex-boyfriends, Sayre hears from a family friend that her mother is in the hospital and that she is on her death bed. Years of drug and alcohol abuse have caught up with her. Sayre is skeptical of just how serious her mother’s hospitalization is, since she’s been in and out of the hospital many times before.
But it soon becomes clear to Sayre that the situation is dire, and that if she wants any sort of closure she will need to visit her estranged mother in the hospital so they can both come to terms with their past.
When I began reading this novel, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it. Having let it sit on my shelf for years, I had completely forgotten what the premise was. Based on the title and cover, I thought it would be a pretty typical contemporary YA drama — perhaps a bit like those written by Gayle Forman. A quick scan of the back cover told me that this would be more of a family drama/literary fiction.
Immediately after finishing Ordinary Beauty, I took to good reads to mark it “finished” and gave it a 4/5 rating. I read the first 25 pages or so at the pool one day, and had then put the book down for a few days, only to pick it up a few nights later and finish it in one sitting. It’s an incredibly engrossing read, and had much greater emotional impact than I expected from it.
With intense subject matter such as addiction and parental abandonment playing a prominent role in the story, I was impressed with Weiss’ sensitive and realistic portrayal of these issues.
With that being said, I decided to give a few days of thought to this novel before typing up my review, and as I’ve thought it over, a couple of things that didn’t work for me as a reader have come to mind.
Ordinary Beauty is structured in alternating chapters that move between the present, in which Sayre is coming to terms with her mother’s impending death, and flashbacks, in which we learn the story of Sayre’s childhood and all of the hell that she and her mother have gone through.
Immediately after I finished reading the novel, this structure was one of the reasons that I rated it so highly. The shifts in time period added a great level of suspense and tension to the story. As I came to the end of each present-set section and began reading the next flashback, I couldn’t put the book down. I felt compelled to get through those flashbacks and find out how things were going to turn out for Sayre and her mother.
In retrospect, I see that this technique was also a bit problematic for the novel. While it drew me into the story and led me to finish the novel in one night, I also had to try very hard to resist the temptation to jump ahead or skim through the flashback chapters. While there is plenty of drama in flashback-land, the situation in the novel’s present chapters is incredibly tense. There’s an immediacy to them that doesn’t exist in the flashback chapters, which makes the novel feel a bit unbalanced. In an adaptation, the flashback scenes would need to be kept brief enough not to distract the viewer from the events of the present, while offering enough information to give the viewer a real sense of all that Sayre’s been through.
My other issues are with the novel’s ending and the character of Evan. *Mild spoilers begin here!* Chapter 29, which wraps the story up, jumps ahead a little bit to show where Sayre ended up after her mother’s death, and what happens to her in the long-term. I felt that this ending wrapped things up a little too cleanly, and I would have liked to see Sayre dealing with the after-effects of her mother’s death, and truly coming to terms with her past. Instead, she gets more of a “fairytale” ending – understandable for Weiss to choose considering all the pain Sayre has encountered, but not incredibly realistic.
Evan plays into this “fairytale.” He is a character introduced as Sayre is making her way to the hospital. She helps him after he runs his car off of the road, and he has a decent-sized role in the first half of the novel. But then he disappears almost completely, and we don’t see him again until he and Sayre end up together. This makes him seem like a plot device rather than a three-dimensional character — added to the story simply to give Sayre a man to end up with. *End spoilers!* I would like to see the character of Evan become a bit more fully developed if the book were adapted for the screen, though of course with the time constraints of film he would still take a back seat to the other characters.
Even though I do see a few problems with Ordinary Beauty after giving it more thought, it’s still a novel I would rate very highly. It tells a very gripping story and Weiss does something that young adult novels don’t frequently do, digging deeply into a damaged relationship between a mother and a daughter. I think it could make for a very effective film.