I could see Making Pretty making it as your standard rom-com fare. (You might have to age-up the characters, but not by much). Corey Ann Haydu creates a good setup here. At first the book promises to be about two sisters drifting apart as one goes off to college and the other finishes high school. Once united in an us-against-the-world kind of bond forged by their mother’s departure and their dad’s subsequent string of wives, the sisters in their time apart find that they are making choices the other won’t necessarily understand. This is a theme, with many parallels, explored by Rainbow Rowell in Fangirl. And the short version of this review, if you don’t feel like reading on, would be: go read Fangirl instead.
This book begins with promise, but its two-dimensional characters and shallow plotting undermine it. Montana and Arizona begin as complex creations. They carry a great deal of baggage about body image given to them by a plastic-surgeon father and the stepmothers whom he transformed with his craft—so much so that on their thirteenth birthdays, he and Stepmom #2 gave the sisters gift certificates for a free cosmetic procedure of their choice. Immediately one of the wedges driven between the sisters this summer is Arizona’s acquiescence, in the form of breast enlargement, much to Montana’s disapproval. Throughout the novel, Haydu emphasizes the way that their father’s objectification of women has influenced the sisters’ ideas of body image and self-esteem.
This fairly interesting theme is one of the reasons the book manages to hold together, and managed to hold my interest, despite the lacklustre characterization. Nowhere is this problem more evident than Karissa, Montana’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl and new bestie for the summer. Haydu initially positions Karissa as a kind of free spirit and radical influence on our teenage narrator. I was down with that. Then comes the twist where Karissa is lined up to be Stepmom #4 … and I thought that was brilliant as well. It neatly illustrates the dysfunctional father–daughter relationship.
Karissa is the consummate actor, and everything about her is constructed and fake even before Montana’s father gets his hands on her. We never get to glimpse the real Karissa. While that could have been fascinating, her behaviour around Montana is more annoying than anything else—we never get a genuine moment of introspection or humanity from her. Even when Montana expresses variations on discomfort, anger, and outrage, Karissa acts like a robot without any understanding of the nuances of human discontent. Her answer to everything is wine and hugs and kisses on the cheek.
If it were just Karissa, I could chalk it up to good characterization. But most of the characters are like this. Bernardo exists to pump up Montana and act as an outlet for her fantasies. He is always pushing her to newer, edgier heights of rebellion. Montana’s father treats his daughters like they are eight, and he never engages in an honest discussion with them. Also he proposes marriage after knowing someone for … a month? Two? Arizona and Montana, meanwhile, bicker like real sisters would … but they never have an actual, honest-to-goodness, fight. (The same goes for Montana and Bernardo. How can you call it a romantic relationship when you haven’t even had your first fight?)
My point, then, is that the characters just don’t seem to behave like real people. My favourite characters were the stepmothers—because they escaped the weird bubble of fakeness and are able to reach in and burst that bubble for Montana. Each time she seeks out one of the stepmoms, she is hoping for some intense revelation or reunion moment that will help her life make sense … only for the stepmom to essentially say, "You are a terrible person, hon, deal with it.” When she and Arizona set off for their trip to California to seek out their mother, I couldn’t help but think that this would end in similar disappointment.
I actually like the ending for all its ambiguity. It fits with the rest of the book. If Making Pretty doesn’t become a rom-com, perhaps it could work as a stage-play. There is a wistful, almost pleading tone to the story, as if it knows it is unsatisfying but hopes we’ll overlook that if it just throws more stuff at us. In the end, I wasn’t bored or disappointed—but I just couldn’t pick out anything in particular about this book that makes it good. When I read, I’m always looking for what a book adds to the conversation it is joining. While Making Pretty makes all the right noises, echoing the general sentiments it has overheard from others, it never quite says something new or original.