Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell @Postteen

*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.

Content Warning: offensive language commonly used by teenagers who thoughtlessly label people different from them (race, heritage, size, physical disabilities, sexual orientation, etc.). A few characters speak poorly of Christianity, and there is an attempted suicide that’s chalked up as just playing (?).


Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell, published by Bloomsbury USA in 2008, in an an Australian YA novel. Since I bought this book based on it’s description, I didn’t know much about it — including the fact that it’s from Australia or that it is YA. Everything Beautiful is about Riley, a teenager whose mother has died and whose father has changed in the process. He meets Norma, who is kind, but that doesn’t matter to Riley. Because Riley can’t seem to stop getting herself into trouble, Norma suggests Riley be sent to a Christian summer camp. Riley is an atheist, not a virgin, not a stranger to smoking and some drug use, and likely won’t fit in at camp thanks to her purple hair, dark clothes, and fat body. She describes herself as “182 pounds and rising.”

The sections of the book are laid out like Genesis: “on the first day,” etc, until day seven to fit with the Christian theme. The first sentence draws you in immediately:

I am the maniac behind the wheel of a stolen dune buggy. Dylan Luck is at my side. We are tearing up the desert, searching for proof of God.

Dylan used to be really into camp, attending every year with his friend; they were the “cool guys.” But in the last year, Dylan became wheelchair bound, and everyone whispers the cause was a failed suicide that started fourteen stories up. Simmone Howell shows Dylan couldn’t care less when he puts out cigarettes on his paralyzed legs and teaches the younger campers about his most prized possession during share time:

“I call these my drifties,” he’s said. “One gives you a kind of fuzzbox effect. Two makes your eyelids feel like they’re made out of cement. Three is the magic number. Three’s when you start to drift away. After four, it depends on your tolerance. Start counting backward from one hundred and see how far you get.” He squared his shoulders. “Prescribed for pain relief. Street value — ” [and then he’s cut off].

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The Australian cover. Mine is the United States edition.

While it’s a dark book in places, there’s a lot of humor rooted in realism. Because Riley sees Dylan as someone who cares as little about camp as she does, she seeks him out from time to time. Dylan won’t be a “cool guy” anymore, even though Craig, the other “cool guy,” tries to get him to be the same. Instead, Dylan watches:

“Craig’s got a tight walk,” he observed. “More like a strut. It’s like his dick is the center of his existence. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they walk.”

Dylan’s observation made me laugh because he’s basically pointing out that although Craig is a good Christian camp guy, he’s also a hypocrite. In fact, Craig is more like a frat boy. He and Dylan used to be the alphas, and now Dylan sees Craig for what he really is (and Dylan used to be).

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The United Kingdom cover.

Riley describes how her dad met Norma using snarky teen wording that also had me smiling:

[After mom died] Dad started going to church again, and not just on Sundays. He got involved. It was months of church-activity craziness. He even auditioned for Moses: The Musical. Dad is a terrible singer. His breathing is all over the place. He sings like someone is chasing him — and it turns out someone was. Norma.

Very small funny moments are sprinkled in, too. The Christian camp is a strange place. Most of the campers are twelve years old, but some, like Riley and Dylan, are around sixteen, so the counselors try to “cheer up” these moody teens with canoeing and nature lessons. Riley points out that so much exercise leaves two options: “heart attack or hurl.” She describes, “…[her] flesh sliding around and [her] face going blueberry.” As a fat reader, I understand exactly what she means and laughed in recognition.

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Me on “mile run day” in school.

Despite my typical hatred of reading teen romances, Simmone Howell keeps the relationship age-appropriate. The characters aren’t fighting to save the entire world together, which leads to grown-up commitment (think Hunger Games and Ready Player One). Riley has sex, and I was proud that she always used condoms. She turns down one guy when they’re half naked because he says he “doesn’t do condoms.” Good for you, girl! There are also many sweet moments: kisses, an exchange of a special gift for remembrances, and nice compliments. And yes, sex (with condoms). Believe it, parents: some teens have sex.

And the fat representation? Other teens at the camp try to shame Riley. When asked, “How much do you weigh?” Riley tells her bunk mates to not touch her stuff. Oh yeah, “And FYI, I weigh a hundred eighty-two pounds and I don’t give a fuck.” When she is sad, Riley admits, “I cried like a girl, a big fat girl. The girl I was.” I love this acknowledgement of who she is with no regrets, no apologies. Riley does realize that she sometimes has sex because it increases her self-esteem in relation to her body, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes she has sex because there is someone around who also wants to have sex. But there is this crumb of sex equaling self-worth in a fat body. I don’t like it, but I remember a lot of teens in high school having sex to prove they were worthy to their peers.

When she’s talking about movies with Dylan, Riley explains what most fat women are thinking (albeit in different wording that I would choose (see content warning)):

“Also, I hate the way you never see fat people on screen unless they’re white trash or retarded or a criminal or all of the above. A fat girl on film is either there for laughs or to gross people out. Unless the film’s about the fat girl’s ‘journey’ to social acceptance through weight loss. Where’s the happy fat girl? That’s what I want to know. Hmmph.”

The language in the quote above is the kind of offensive stuff you will read occasionally. I won’t repeat what’s written, but Riley and the other teens aren’t sensitive with their choice of words. They sound like teens, though the language stands out as offensive to me as an adult. Yet, the poor word choices aren’t on every page.

I’d highly recommend Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell. I never knew what would happen next, and while I found the characters realistic, they weren’t stereotypes. If you don’t lean toward YA, give this novel a try. The plot isn’t a love triangle, nor is it a teen saving the whole world. This isn’t some teens solving an epic puzzle or falling deeply in love while battling a deadly disease. It’s honest and compulsively readable.

If you haven’t already, please vote on which genre I should read next in my Fat Reads Quest!

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23 thoughts on “Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell @Postteen

  1. That does sound a good one – hooray! Although the language is regrettable, I suppose it’s what a teenager might use (not the ones know, however). Is anyone ever picked up for that, or do they change the language when enountering people they’ve “othered” in this way? I suppose that’s a lot to ask of the book.

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    1. I’m not sure what you mean by picked up. Basically, if someone is fat, they’re called a “fat bitch.” If someone has a funny looking mustache, it’s labeled “gay looking.” Etc. This book is also ten years old, a bit before Twitter, which is really the place where people point out and say they’re not okay with name calling. I’ve learned more about PC language on Twitter in the last few years than anywhere else in my life.

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      1. Sorry, what I meant was did anyone in the book challenge the language the character used about others. But then if it’s just the narrator’s internal monologue I suppose that would have been difficult. I hope that’s clearer, anyway, sorry.

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  2. This sounds like a good read. I reviewed a ya book from Australia a few Months ago and really enjoyed it. I think the Aussies are a little less concerned about writing potentially offensive things so their stories tend to be more “raw”.

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    1. Could be true! This book is almost ten years old, and we’ve come a long way in defending against name calling in that time. However, the teens in this book sounded nicer than the teens in my high school (15-20 years ago).

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  3. I’m going to do my grumpy old woman routine for a moment, so apologies in advance! I’m so glad my generation didn’t have to read books full of teenage sex, vile language, crude body references etc. It saddens me that this is the kind of stuff that’s considered acceptable now. I wrote another 5000 words in this comment but you’ll be pleased to hear I deleted it… 😉

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    1. I wish you had kept it because I always value what you have to say. The are two very brief sex scenes, neither of which are described in detail. I’m glad that the author didn’t ignore ten sex because while I surely wasn’t sexually active in high school, most people I knew were, so it is a realistic depiction. As for the language, I wouldn’t characterize it as vulgar so much as thoughtless. Riley didn’t like a guys mustache, so she called it “gay,” for example. For each thoughtless label, there is one example as opposed to multiple. I read very PC books when I was in school, and I wish they had been more realistic so I had something to guide me, some examples, even, of what not to do.

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      1. I may post at some point about what I see as the declining cultural standards promoted by fiction and pop culture, especially aimed at youth. It’s not really realism I object to, it’s the unspoken message (or sometimes spoken messages) that sex from about fourteen up is normal and that anyone who isn’t proficient by sixteen is somehow backwards or a misfit… or ugly. I had just abandoned a book before I read your review, so was particularly annoyed already. In it, a (gorgeous, naturally) sixteen year old girl is portrayed wandering about in a thong and happily performing oral sex acts on her boyfriend. It was the implicit suggestion that this wasn’t just ‘normal’ but standard practice, and in some way admirable, that I objected to. Of course, some sixteen year olds are sexually mature, but books like that are designed (IMO) to make all young girls (and boys, for that matter) feel they should be sexually active, which makes them terribly vulnerable to sexual predators… IMO! (Especially when the message seems to be that the primary purpose of girls is to fulfil male sex fantasies.) Adults writing for young people should show more responsibility in the messages they send. And much the same applies to casual drug and alcohol use, while the normalisation of foul, often sexualised, language shows its effect in the fact that many young people seem incapable of writing a sentence without swearing, and don’t even realise that the majority of adults think it makes them look coarse, stupid and uneducated. Would I employ a teenager or twenty-something to deal with the public if I felt s/he didn’t know when it’s inappropriate to swear? You bet I wouldn’t! Haha! I’ll stop now – but you get the general picture… 😉

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        1. I’m so glad you wrote this out because I agree with you. Only three of the kids at the camp were sexually active: one because she had low self-esteem, one because he wanted to sleep with a lot of girls, and one who did it occasionally. There was a part that implied a girl had done a lot of heavy petting and was basically doing it so a boy would like her. In the end, most of them who were active were at it for unhealthy reasons.

          However, I also think that a well-placed curse word can be very effective. Riley didn’t curse much, but I did put up a content warning in case readers don’t want any sort of foul language in their books.

          Personally, I made it through graduation without doing anything our parents fear we do, but almost no one else I knew was so “innocent” (drugs, sex, drinking, cigarettes). I think authors likely recapture their own youth in books, writing what they remember. Yet, I hope they also weave in some of what they now know, too, to send out a responsible message.

          I always appreciate your comments! You make me think.

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  4. Glad Aussie books are making an impression. If my local (Perth, Western Australia) bookshop can get this one I’ll give it to my (skinny) 14 yo granddaughter for xmas, and I’ll print out your post to go with it so we can discuss the issues. Years ago I attempted to discuss weight with her mother (my youngest daughter) and got firmly slapped down!

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    1. Discuss your granddaughter’s weight in a “you’re too fat” kind of way, or a “hey, stop calling yourself fat” kind of way? I felt like it was a very realistic book, but when I read blogger reviews of YA, they pay a lot of attention to how politically correct the characters are. Not all characters are. These characters are not. They are much nicer than people I remember in real life, though. It’s a balance. Teens, ammirite?

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  5. I honestly don’t know if I would enjoy reading this book based on your review. I appreciate all the fat positivity you called out, particularly since you feel like you connected and related to the experiences of Riley. Plus, how realistic the experiences are is amazing. But, these teenagers sound like the teenagers I avoided when I was a kid. I’m embarrassed to say that reading this review made me feel some disgust and anxiety. That shows I have some serious issues which still exist from that time of my life… This comes from the offensive language, the themes, and the way the characters are interacting with each other. These are all the same reasons I walked out of the theatre when I saw Mean Girls. I’m such an easily offended, fragile flower. O_o

    You mention the humor, but I don’t really see it based on this review. How does this get portrayed mostly? Sarcasm? Physical humor? Witty banter? I think depending on how the humor is portrayed I might be willing to give this a try. I feel like there are potentially some great things for me to learn from this text.

    Also, does the relationship with Riley and her father get explored? I am the MOST interested in how the loss of Norma affects their lives based on the synopsis.

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    1. I wouldn’t call someone who avoids nastiness “sensitive” or a “fragile flower,” Jackie. I just know that I went to middle school in a poorer area and got used to hearing insults constantly. I still vividly remember a boy named Tony lighting a girl named Jessica’s hair on fire in the hallway. That’s where I come from. My high school actually received a big boost of money when a large casino was built. Casinos are required to give a certain % of their yearly earnings to city establishments, like a public school. Therefore, my high school expanded, we jumped to 1,200 students, and it was easy to avoid nasty people and still have friends and groups. You can lose yourself in a weird niche in a school that big if you want to. That’s why I have a hard time understanding popular cliques–when there are 1,200 students, there can’t be 5-6 cool kids. It just doesn’t work. Therefore, my experiences feed into how I read this book. I’m worried that I made it sound much darker than it really is. The mean names come once in a while (maybe one every few chapters). I think the only time Riley uses an f-bomb that I can remember is in the quote I provided. I quoted that passage instead of paraphrasing it because I felt it was important to show how vehemently she has to oppose other kids at camp who want to label her a fatty or a glutton (depending on how religious said kid is). The parts I deemed funny were definitely dark humor. Then again, I like dark humor like Trainspotting, so I know it’s not a big happy laugh that I’m doing. Basically, I felt tickled by the fact that Dylan is able to see what a two-faced person Craig is, but we also know that Dylan, before he needed the use of a wheelchair, was exactly the same guy. It’s like he’s poking fun at himself and the whole institution of the “cool guy.” In the quote about Norma chasing the dad, I laughed because Riley points out how her dad breathes in all the wrong places when he sings, but he’s trying so dang hard! As a music person who knows about breathing, etc., this made me laugh. Riley’s father does re-appear at the end, and we’re again reminded that step-mom Norma IS a nice person. That fact doesn’t make Riley happy because she misses her mother, who is dead. I would recommend this book for not being TOO gritty, but not falling into stereotypes of teens that are softened around the edges (which I see in the YA I’ve read).

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      1. Thank you– I honestly never thought of it as “avoiding nastiness”. It just makes me feel… well, physically and mentally ill.

        Wow– a boy lit a girl’s hair on fire in the school hallway?! Yikes. I wouldn’t say that I went to an extraordinarily nice school, I just cut out the nastiness around me the best I could. I also went to a large high school, so it was easy to find a group of people I actually wanted to spend time with. We definitely had cliques, but I honestly couldn’t tell you who was a part of which one. It just didn’t matter to me.

        Ahhh– dark humor. I think that dark humor definitely has its place. I just have to be in the right mood for it. I’ve never read or seen Trainspotting, but it’s on my TBR. I do love me some short stories!

        I think you did a wonderful job defending the merits of Everything Beautiful. I’ll add it to my TBR– but I can’t promise I’ll get to it soon. You definitely have me intrigued, however. It’s not often books like this avoid teenage stereotypes.

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  6. That is true about fat girls in movies. It’s sad and unfair. But then again, I also feel the same about curly girls. They also always need to be ‘fixed’. Because curly is unacceptable. Unless you have straight hair and curl yours. That’s acceptable. Obviously not the same problem as weight and size representation, but it’s what’s relevant to me.
    Anyway, this book sounds great!

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    1. I know what you mean about curly hair! I used to go to the salon until I realized everyone who worked there had straight hair. I asked about it and discovered it was policy that no one could wear their hair curly unless they had curled it. I assume they mean that curly hair looks unprofessional, or something stupid like that. There is also this kiosk at my local mall that sells hair styling tools. When I walk by, they ask, “Did you curl your hair?” and I say no. Then they ask if I ever consider straightening it. Really, they just want me to change my hair!! Grr.

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