big mouth and ugly girl
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Oates, as you would expect, targets her teenage audience with professional accuracy. The fact that her original readers were American probably makes very little difference to their British counterparts. Indeed, post Buffy, Sweet Valley High, sundry sitcoms and movies, American High Schools may have an extra glamour to British eyes. Although there is no whiff of cynical manipulation, several of the stock ingredients are here: the awkward heroine (oversized and arrogant with it), the verbally agile offbeat hero, the jocks, the basketball games, the school newspaper, the misunderstanding parents and the self-dramatising hysteria which grips a school threatened by a crazy student bomber. There's some nasty thuggery and a dognapping, and some equally nasty - a new twist? - Christian fundamentalism. All of which, handled expertly, makes for a good page turner. The story is largely told in two voices: a conventional narrative distances us a little from Matt, the falsely accused bomber, while Ursula records her own version of the daily dramas at Rocky River High punctuated by wry third-person reflections upon her Ugly Girl self. Both these modes are full of energy, enhanced by sections of email exchanges - a swift and witty means of moving things along. The emerging feelings between the two oddballs (and all sympathetic characters are oddballs in American High School novels) are handled tenderly, despite forays into language which probably won't make a young British reader wince such as when Ursula muses, 'these emotions belonged to him legitimately'. Even the wisdom of Germaine Greer offers a moment of revelation to the heroine and, all in all, it's extremely readable soap; maybe ER but not West Wing. It all ends, as we thought it might, with 'The first kiss didn't work out too well, I guess. We'd be trying others.'