24/04/2008

Look the World in the Eye (by Alice Peterson)

If I'm browsing a bookshop, I don't tend to pick out the ones with bright primary coloured covers, untidy handwriting fonts, shooting stars, or wineglasses. I am still somewhat biased against so-called 'chick-lit', despite having now read several very good books in the genre, and these features on a cover tend to suggest a story that's ultra fluffy, probably full of alcohol, free sex, shopping, girly talk, and not much more. A book with all four of those front-cover features would never leave the shelf if I happened to spot it.

However, nearly a year ago, I read 'You, me and him' by Alice Peterson - a book with a much nicer front cover, which I was sent by The Bookbag site. I liked it so much that I immediately looked on Amazon to see what else she had written. It turned out that there was only one other novel - her first - so I put it on my wishlist, and received it as a gift on my recent birthday.

'Look the World in the Eye' does seem to start in typical chick-lit style, albeit very well written, bringing the characters to life straight away. We meet Katie at the start of the book; the story is all told from her point of view, in the first person, and also in the present tense - something I used to find a bit awkward, but it works very well in this book.

Katie owns a fashion shop, and we first meet her running a fashion show, which is very successful. We also meet her wealthy boyfriend Sam, who seems very fond of her, albeit rather wrapped up in himself. They live together in Sam's home, which is large, minimalist, and expensive.

Then the first crisis occurs. Katie has a phone call from her father, asking if she can look after Bells for a couple of weeks. Katie has already felt a bit guilty about a letter from Bells, which she hasn't even opened yet. Bells, it turns out, is her sister Isabel, who was born with a cleft palate and lip, and also some brain damage. Bells is excellent at some things - such as cooking and gardening - but has no idea of abstract concepts, and in some ways is more like a ten-year-old. She lives in a community of people with mild mental disabilities, where she is very happy.

But Bells needs somewhere to stay, and her parents - to Katie's surprise - are taking a couple of weeks' holiday, since her mother has been rather run-down.

The problem is that Katie has not told Sam anything about Bells. She cares a great deal about her image, and also what Sam thinks of her. So she does what she can to put it off... and finally lets Sam know that her sister is coming to stay, just a day before Bells actually arrives. She tries to explain what Bells is like, but doesn't really succeed... so the actual first meeting is something of a disaster.

Bells is delightful character, apparently based on someone Alice Peterson once knew. She certainly comes across as realistic: totally honest, to the point of rudeness at times; a surprisingly good judge of character; and really very willing to please, so long as she's told exactly what to do. She's more easily hurt than Katie realises, and evidently does not like Sam.

The book is really about Katie realising just what a lovely person her sister is, and how people's bad reactions to her are reflections on their own biases and negativity, rather than there being anything wrong with Bells. As more characters are introduced, the 'nice' ones are those who respond positively to Bells.

I found it rather thought-provoking; Katie learns that her image isn't everything, that it doesn't matter what people think of her. She also learns a lot about her childhood, and her parents, and what love really means. Some of the minor characters are rather caricatured, but the majority are very well-rounded and believable.

I found myself reading this at every odd moment to find out how it would end. The last pages were a little rapid and - eventually - predictable, but overall I thought it a very good read. There are a few expletives used, but they're not overdone, and there's no explicit sex at all. 'Look the World in the Eye' is yet another book that is partly dispelling my negative ideas about 'chick-lit', and I recommend it to anyone who likes light women's fiction.

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