Saturday, April 9, 2011
Review: Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard
14-year-old ex-beauty pageant participant Grace Carpenter just wants to get out of Washokey, Wyoming, where everything, especially her pageant-obsessed mother, is stifling and nothing is beautiful…except for Mandarin Ramey, whose sensuality and shamelessness ensures that she always stands out in Washokey. Grace has always watched Mandarin from afar, wishing that she knew what it was like to be Mandarin. So no one is more surprised than she when Mandarin extends her hand in friendship.
Being friends with Mandarin is exhilarating, and a little terrifying. Mandarin convinces Grace that the two of them need to get out of Washokey in order to live. Does Grace have what it takes to give up all that she knows in order not to lose Mandarin?
Everyone raved about this book months before it came out. Melina Marchetta blurbed it. It has a stunning cover. Suffice it to say that my expectations going into Kirsten Hubbard’s debut novel were really high. And while LIKE MANDARIN didn’t quite live up to them, suffice it to say that it is still a lovely and evocative book that deserves to be read and beloved.
It is a very risky thing to try and create a MPDG—a “manic pixie dream girl,” the kind of character who seems to embody passion, mystery, adventure, obsession, the forever wandering soul. There’s a negative connotation associated with MPDGs in films, but in literature I think of Alaska Young and Margo Roth-Spiegelman. Does Mandarin take a spot alongside these legendary literary girls? Not quite, but not without trying. It’s easy to see Mandarin, sexy and fearless and disdainful, strolling down the Wyoming streets with her jeans slung below her hips and her hair tumbling down her back. It’s clear that Mandarin is Grace’s MPDG—but she wasn’t entirely mine. Grace and our assumptions of MPDGs hint at Mandarin’s troubled life—abuse, misdirected sexuality, and so on—but they don’t feel completely realized in Mandarin’s character. Throughout the book, we remain firmly in Grace’s point of view, which, since this is first-person narration, makes sense, but the narration didn’t allow for the possibility of Mandarin developing as a fully complex character for me, the reader. What I mean is: Grace says Mandarin is fascinating and the representation of freedom and beauty, but I didn’t entirely see it in the story.
Grace is not a bad character—I can’t help but like a girl who, at six years old, flashed the entire audience at her last beauty pageant—but her focus on Mandarin does color our view of her a bit. Because Mandarin never quite lived up to her reputation in my opinion, I found that I also became a little skeptical of Grace’s, um, judgment. I guess that this kind of thinking and behavior is understand in a restless 14-year-old; I always got this impression that Grace was older than that, which may also have contributed to why I didn’t entirely empathize with Grace. She was pretty much fixated on Mandarin to the point where it became a bit uncomfortable and perhaps even boring for me.
My favorite character was, unexpectedly, Grace’s little sister, Taffeta. Now that is a girl who has the potential to grow up to be the Mandarin Ramey of her generation, if she wanted to be so. If you’ve read the book, maybe you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t read the book and intend to, look out for her. She’s adorable.
I was mesmerized by Kirsten Hubbard’s writing, although at times the descriptive language did feel a bit excessive. I loved the way Grace thought about Wyoming wildwinds: it made me want to go to Wyoming and experience that for myself, the restlessness that a landscape and climate can create. At other times, however, I felt like the writing tried a bit too hard to be “pretty,” to the point where the descriptive language didn’t actually make sense, or made me stop and scratch my head and try to figure out how in the world that simile was supposed to work.
Overall, LIKE MANDARIN didn’t entirely give me what I wanted, but I still finished the book with a little bit of a “wow” feeling in my chest. I think the cover, writing style, and premise will really draw contemporary realism lovers, and I don’t think that the appeal is misguided at all. This is a good debut novel, and I am interested in seeing what Kirsten Hubbard writes next.
Julie Anne Peters
Catherine Ryan Hyde
Cover discussion: Still one of my favorite covers of 2011 so far. Such a stunning use of white space, complemented by that brilliant shade of (mandarin) orange.
Delacorte Books / March 8, 2011 / Hardcover / 320pp. / $17.99
Copy sent for review by publisher. Thanks, Random House!