I picked up this book based solely on that wonderful cover by Zachary Flagg Baldus (who, amusingly enough, describes the book in this manner at his site: “young gal gets popular FAST when she shows up at the dance looking HOT”). My late-afternoon request yesterday to feature the illustration sans text was a success, too; Zachary gave me permission to post it, and I’ve included it at the bottom of this review (go see his art-filled site, too. Prints for all that you see there are available, he tells me, but he can tell us more later. I found myself clicking on every image at his site, and I lined him up for a future Sunday feature). My infatuation with the cover art wouldn’t have lasted longer than that well-designed cover, whose dress plays prominently in the book, if it hadn’t been for Liz Gallagher’s ability to create memorable characters and a very real sense of place in this, her first novel, The Opposite of Invisible (Wendy Lamb Books; January ’08; review copy).
A self-confidence-challenged high schooler named Alice has one — and only one — friend, Jewel (short for Julian), who has been her best friend since childhood and who seems to Alice to be “in color when most of the world is sort of sepia-toned.” This friend-count is only if you don’t include her “Dove Girl” poster that hangs over her bed, a print of Picasso’s Le Visage de la Paix (the book’s opener, to be added to Memorable Opening Lines of YA Lit, grabs you with “Some girls have journals. I talk to my poster”). Jewel and Alice live in rainy Seattle (“we’ve grown up here, so we’re amphibians”), their days consisting of school and lots of lattes and visits to the Fremont Troll (pictured here),”where some major drama goes down,” as Liz puts it succinctly at her web site. Both Alice and Jewel are high school misfits, the “out there” ones who feel invisible to the rest of the school — yet Alice less so than she realizes. Both are artists, Alice taking a burgeoning, off-campus interest in glass-blowing and most of the student population wondering if that artistic friend of hers is a gay boy.
But what they don’t know — and what Alice can’t seem to notice at first — is that Jewel has it bad for her. But, before he leans in for a kiss, Alice meets Simon, a football player at her school. When Simon tells her, during one of their first conversations, that “out there” to him constitutes a certain level of courage (“It’s kind of . . . brave . . . To be who you are. In high school”), she falls and falls hard. Now cue that kiss from Jewel. Poor Alice. Her heart beats fast, and “his lips are like the rain . . . We really kissed. This heartbeat might be a happy roller-coaster rush if it had happened one week ago. But now. It’s a two-guys-at-once-two-kisses-you-have-to-choose. And I don’t know if my heart can survive that kind of beating.”
I won’t tell the ending or even whom Alice chooses, but I will say that the novel, as Alice decides to both literally and figuratively let her hair down, is about more than one girl’s first real romance and that Jerry Spinelli, in the book’s proud back-cover endorsement, is right when he writes, “a wonderful, true-to-life, how-will-it-end first novel.” I read it in no-time-flat, wondering where Alice’s heart and desire to leave her self-imposed “cocoon” would take her. It’s quite a bumpy ride at times for Alice, because . . . well, because “chaos was what killed the dinosaurs, darling,” in the words of J.D., a character in another invigorating high school tale. Touching upon themes of self-discovery and identity (and, needless to say, looking beyond the tired ‘ol cliques of high schools. As Little Willow put it well in her interview with the author, “instead of being stereotypical wholly nasty types, the would-be antagonists in the story are drawn in gray”), Gallagher infuses the plot turns with a real momentum that makes the book hard to put down.
This is a book whose characters lingered in my mind, long after I finished it. Heartily recommended, especially to art-loving, more left-of-center students, as the love of all things art and the sometimes-heartbreaking, complicated art of self-expression play a huge role in the novel. (Move over, Face of Peace; there’s some Duchamp adoration goin’ on as well in the form of Fountain, which brings about one of the book’s best lines: “Because being different . . . means being interesting. And that will always be hot.” Snap. Snap. This could be a new non-conformist’s cheer, could it not?).
Pair it with last year’s Kissing the Bee by Kathe Koja, and you’ll have two well-crafted novels (and both zippy-quick reads, due to book length and sheer unputdownable-ness) of two teens’ journey of self-discovery. Liz Gallagher is one to watch.
Fun fact: Liz — a recent grad of the Vermont College MFA program in writing for children and young adults and a member of the Class of 2k8 — offers us a novel soundtrack/playlist here. Thanks to Little Willow, who interviewed Liz in January, for the link. (Little Willow also designed Liz’s attractive web site).