Becky Randle has always considered herself pretty plain. Not an uggabug, mind you, but nothing special either. She lives in a trailer with her mother, an obese woman whom everyone else seems to write off, but who Becky knows is the kindest, most wonderful person in the world.
But then her mom dies, and Becky is left rudderless. She’s just graduated high school, she has a part-time job at a corner store that she hates, she’s not going to college, and her mom was the only bright spot in her life – aside from her best friend, Rocher (named after the candy). Shortly before her mother died, she cryptically told Becky to embrace the magic when it’s offered to her – and sure enough, it is. She’s contacted by Tom Kelly, the world’s foremost fashion designer, who promises to make her three dresses which will magically transform her into the most beautiful woman in the world.
Sure enough, the first dress she puts on – a hot red number – does just that. When she’s alone, Becky looks in the mirror and sees her average self. But when anyone else is with her, she looks like Rebecca, the knock-out, the stunner. Tom Kelly and his dresses take Becky on a wild ride – the cover of Vogue, a starring role in an action movie opposite the hottest actor, and even a meeting with the prince of England. Then Tom Kelly reveals the catch (you knew there would be a catch, didn’t you?). Becky is not so sure of her transformation, not so sure of Tom Kelly, and very afraid of what being permanently Rebecca would do to her life.
The standout of this novel is Becky’s voice. She’s sarcastic, funny, self-deprecating, and vulgar (though not nearly as vulgar as Rocher). Her story is told in first person, so you really get a good feel for who she is through her own eyes. It’s obvious her self-esteem isn’t very high. It’s also obvious she’s in over her head with this whole situation. Her friend Rocher is a breath of fresh air. I fully expected Rocher to be written as initially supportive but eventually envious, complete with a falling-out and ultimate reconciliation at the end of the book. That’s not at all what happens. Rocher is beside Becky’s side the entire time, and Becky never abandons Rocher for any of her new, more famous, acquaintances. Plus, Rocher is freaking hilarious.
The weakest part of the book is Becky’s romance with the prince, which is fun but not very well-developed. It seems he and Becky go from meeting each other to being an acknowledged couple with no steps in between. It seems rushed, like perhaps Rudnick just wanted to skip ahead to the good stuff. For all that the prince is a good-looking, funny, kind-hearted, famous, and very wealthy man, I never felt the swoon that I felt I should have.
I haven’t been as involved in the new adult discussion as Kelly has, but I think Gorgeous fits the bill pretty well. It features a protagonist who is 19 for the majority of the story. She’s no longer in high school. She’s concerned with marriage (in a mostly non-romantic way), with finding a job that will allow her to make a living, with how the world perceives her as an adult and what her legacy would be. For people who don’t go to college after graduation, these are very realistic concerns. (As an aside, I think it’s nice to see a teenager who makes the valid decision to not go to college.) There’s also quite a bit of strong language, which doesn’t make a book NOT young adult, but it does contribute to a more mature tone.
So is it a good read? Definitely. Is it Printz-worthy? Probably not. The pacing isn’t perfect. More than that, though, the message is just kind of murky. When you write a book about a self-professed “plain” woman who is magically transformed into the most beautiful person in the world, how do you resolve that neatly? How do you make the story true to its world, which values physical beauty, but also prevent it from being total wish fulfillment or a complete downer? I’m not sure Rudnick got it totally right, but then again, I’m not sure it’s possible to get it totally right. And of course, there’s no reason there needs to be a message at all. He gets points for grappling with it in the first place.