She’s a little insubordinate, a little broken, a little overweight, and a little over it all. The thing is, though, she’s totally comfortable with who she is, despite the fact she’s experienced a loss that’s rattled her and one that’s caused her to accept a woman into her life that she otherwise hates: her stepmother. And it’s her stepmother who insists she spend a week at a camp for Christians, something Riley would never in a million years want to do. She doesn’t believe in God and she certainly doesn’t want to spend an entire week pretending around a bunch of kids who are the kinds of kids she’d never be caught dead hanging out with.
But she has no choice.
When Riley gets to camp, she finds herself an instant outsider, and she doesn’t make any effort to fit in, either. Instead, she finds herself looking around the fringes for the kids like her, the ones forced to be here, rather than the ones who chose to be here because they want to be. Lucky for her, though, she finds herself a companion in Dylan, a boy bound to a wheelchair and a boy about whom many campers whisper. There’s something about him that strikes her as important, and it’s not his disability. It’s something much deeper and something that will change her views of faith and belief — something she’d never in a million years admit could happen at a “god camp.”
This book has been on my radar for a really long time — upwards of a year. But I couldn’t find it anywhere, in any book stores or libraries near by. I finally broke down and bought it online, with the notion it was the kind of story I might fall in love with, as it combined all of the elements I love in a story. And let me say, it hit every single note perfectly.
Riley is one of the best written female leads I’ve read in a while. She’s got an attitude and a prejudice against everything, but she’s completely okay with this. It’s who she is and it’s what she identifies with. But the fact of the matter is, she’s really a hurting girl, and as readers, we’re given insight into this slowly in the way she reacts to different situations going on around her. Immediately upon getting to camp, she’s dropped into a room with two girls she classifies as “god kids,” and she’s not interested in giving them the time of day. She’s above them, better than them and what she perceives as their perfect lives. But the thing is, one of her roommates is hurting and unhappy, and it’s Riley who dives in to lend her a shoulder and an ear. She would never admit to it, and she’d never suggest she cares, but she does. She’s built a million walls around her, but the fact is, they’re all cracked and crumbling, and we’re able to see it both from her mind and from our removed place as readers.
Riley is comfortable with herself and her physical appearance, even though she can get a little defensive about it at times. She’s overweight, and she knows she sticks out amongst fellow campers for being an unathletic fat girl in a camp where there are athletes and outdoor enthusiasts aplenty. But never once does she suggest dieting, never once does she wallow in pity about her weight (other than mentioning she’s gained so much due to being put on birth control pills). This plays such a crucial role in the story, I think, and it’s a detail that would sell this title to many a reader easily.
Everything Beautiful has what might be the most wonderful romance I’ve read in a long time. Riley, despite being against everything this camp stand for, begins to find herself developing feelings for Dylan. Dylan is a bit of a camp legend, having once been one of the most athletic and strong campers; the thing is, an accident changed Dylan from an athlete to a disabled boy, and he hasn’t been forthright about the cause of the accident. By being reticent about it, he’s caused quite a stir in the camp, and many speculate about the horrible thing he must have done to get himself in that situation. And it turns him into an outcast.
Dylan’s loss, combined with the loss Riley experiences in her mother’s death, brings them together in an unexpected and sweet manner. But, of course, neither admits to it readily. Instead, they dance around their affections for one another by causing a bit of mischief and mayhem. I’m not a big romance person, as I find it often overdone in novels, but Howell nails it perfectly, and she does so in a way that never compromises either Riley’s wild independence nor Dylan’s slight aloofness.
One of the biggest themes in this book is that of belief and faith. The story is set in a Christian camp, which is meant to be an opportunity for teens to connect with one another and with their spiritual beliefs. Even though Riley is adamantly against religion and downright offended to be spending a week around people who hold beliefs completely opposite hers, this is a story of Riley learning that she is a person who has immense amounts of faith. And that’s really the crux here: faith. Howell nails the idea that faith comes in a multitude of forms and shapes, and that no one matter of having it is better or more legitimate than another. People like Riley, who have no spiritual belief system, and people like many of the other campers who hold themselves as devout Christians, can all unite under the idea of having faith, whether it’s in a God or in themselves. This revelation is such a powerful moment in the story and one that really snapped together all of the little pieces of the story I’d already liked. There really aren’t enough stories about faith and belief that aren’t overly preachy or one-sided, and I’m thrilled that this book exists to defy the stereotypes of this subgenre.
Everything Beautiful has easily become one of my favorites books for its strong characterization, powerful and believable voice, and for the well-woven themes of faith and love. This book also tackles the notion of grief quite powerfully and in a way that further proves everyone grieves differently (something I’ve talked about before). Hand this to fans of realistic fiction and to those who like sharp, biting, but ultimately aching main characters. It isn’t what I’d call a clean book, and it incorporates enough moments of humor to temper the heavier topics at hand. Bonus: this book’s set in Australia, so there’s some fun setting and slang-related writing teens who like foreign books will enjoy, but the way it’s written never becomes distracting. This back list title is worth the time to visit.
My only criticism is that I can’t get the book with the cover I’ve chosen to include here. My cover looks like this. As anyone who has read this blog knows, I hate books where a fat girl has been made skinny on the cover, and without doubt, the American publishers chose to create a cover which makes 180+ pound Riley into a thin girl.
Book reviewed from a personal copy.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).