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Big Mouth and Ugly Girl    by Joyce Carol Oates order for
Big Mouth and Ugly Girl
by Joyce Carol Oates
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2002 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Lance Victor Eaton

In her first trek into YA fiction, Joyce Carol Oates delivers a great story about friendship, unfortunate consequences, and the effects of school stratification on youth, that should be read by all ages. She gives listeners the tale of Matt 'Big Mouth' Donaghy and Ursula 'Ugly Girl' Riggs. When Matt is accused of plotting to blow up the school by two anonymous students, his whole life is thrown into turmoil, and he suffers its continuous effects for months to come.

Following the accusation and the media blitz that descends upon the school, Ursula Riggs (a self-confident, determined, and abrupt individual) comes forward as the only person to defend the fairly popular Matt. Though she has exchanged only half a dozen words with him in her life, Ursula speaks up because she knows it is the right thing to do. Despite being freed of charges, Matt feels their ramifications for months to come. He has become ostracized from his friends and social circle, constantly looked upon with uncertainty. After Ursula associates with Matt, their friendship sparks more controversy within the school. Through each other, Ursula and Matt come to learn a great deal about themselves, while at the same time fighting the pressures that the school environment puts on them.

Oates does so many great things in this story, addressing a wide range of issues that young people must deal with all the time. Matt is a young man whose life takes a horrible turn for the worse. It drives him to isolation, depression, thoughts of suicide, and potentially a reason to commit the very act he was accused of. But mostly Matt serves as a vehicle to understand Ursula, who sees herself almost as a separate identity, Ugly Girl.

Ugly Girl is tough, strong, independent, and so many other positive attributes that most high school girls lack. And though Ursula portrays her self image as ugly, that doesn't stand in the way of her accomplishments. Her complex personality doesn't become a cliché character or too much of a preachy moral lesson. She isn't perfect and she struggles to figure out the world that she lives in. One other great tool used by Oates is her integration of email into the story, as a means of communication between teenagers today. The wording, the hesitations to hit send or not, the rapid fire responses back and forth, are all very accurate and appropriate for today's teen communication.

Married couple, Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe, narrate the points of view of Ursula and Matt, respectively. Swank does a fantastic job of delivering the tough but kind Ugly Girl. Given her complexity and range of emotions, Swank manages to enthrall listeners with a performance that feels natural and on target with the plot. Lowe dwindles in comparison. At times, his reading feels abrupt, like he's forcing each word. Also, his voice change for other characters, such as Matt's father, seems to be lacking. That's not to say his performance makes for uncomfortable listening - overall, he reads decently but comes up short in contrast to Swank.

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl tells a great tale that often defies or dismantles clichés and stereotypes. The rich characters and authenticity of details and actions make the story heart-felt and genuine.

Note: This review refers to an unabridged (6 hours) audiobook narrated by Chad Lowe and Hilary Swank, available as a download from

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