I feel like I shouldn’t be titling this “Yay for YA.”  Ordinary Beauty by Laura Wiess is a hard-hitting problem novel that really doesn’t inspire a person to make a happy noise (except over the prose).  Furthermore, my reading of this novel was punctuated by a horribly sad tragedy within my family.  Just a few hours after my review of Hoot, my beloved companion of 16 years, Cleocatra (known to most as Cleo), passed away on my lap after a short battle with chronic renal failure.

She always loved Christmas.

Sometimes we read books at just the right times.  I had put down a biographical fiction about my cat’s namesake’s daughter (Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the famous Queen Cleopatra VII), Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter after the point in the book where the queen had died, and picked up Ordinary Beauty, a heart-rending tale about a neglected teenager facing the death of the drug-addicted mother who never wanted her.  In working my way through this novel in the final days before my cherished cat died and afterward during sleepless nights, it seems like life softened the blow of the story – while the story emphasized just how lucky we were.

I suppose I should get to the review.

Statistics
Checkouts: I’ll probably donate it to the school library.
Typical reader: Mature teen girls

Synopsis: Sayre (pronounced “Say-er,” much thanks to the author for answering my email to clarify that!) Bellavia was unplanned, unwanted, and unloved by her mother.  Now, on New Year’s Eve, Sayre gets word that her mother is dying from the effects of all the years of drug abuse and alcoholism, and looks to see her one last time.  The journey is hard, both physically as she nearly gets hit by a car and then tries to rescue the driver when the car swerves off the road, and mentally as she looks back on all the memories of her 17 1/2 years of life.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

Like I said earlier, this is a hard-hitting problem novel.  It’s hard to not get choked up over all the tragedy in Sayre’s life.  Her mother never even tried to give her a good life, and preferred to just get high.  All the good in Sayre’s childhood had to be colored by the drama and decadence her mother and her mother’s friend Candy brought into it.  She lived with her grandma until she was eight and the grandmother passed away; her mother and Candy squandered everything that was left until the house foreclosed.  After Candy’s family farm was raided for its meth lab and the women went into rehab, Sayre enjoyed life with a foster family – then, after she was reunited with a sober mother, the foster mother was murdered.  The happiest time of their lives was when the mother met someone wonderful, a man Sayre had met in foster care, and moved in with him.  Even that had to end in the most horrible way possible.

The prose is solid, and the delivery is never preachy.  This novel would make a good book club or class discussion topic, with all its social and familial problems.  Sayre’s mother was a pregnant teenager and high school dropout, a meth addict, an alcoholic, and an abusive/neglectful parent.  Candy dated a sex offender who violated parole by living under the same roof as Sayre, came after Sayre with a hammer when she saw the girl with her boyfriend, was a constant bad influence on Sayre’s mother, and left Sayre and the injured driver of the crashed vehicle out in the cold, dark night in the middle of nowhere.  After Sayre walked out on her mother shortly before the start of the story, she was living with a convicted murderer.

Is all that starting to sound a bit unreal?  In Ordinary Beauty, it never felt that way.  Everything came across as believable.  It’s a story that some girl like Sayre could well be living out, somewhere in the real world.  Also, for all the thorns that we can easily dwell upon in this tale, there are quite a few roses.  As much as her life was overshadowed by her terrible mother, Sayre did have good people in her life, and good experiences that helped shape her into a decent young woman.

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