Lisa Lerner’s Just Like Beauty is a strange book – and not just because it’s about a futuristic beauty contest where the contestants have to kill their pet rabbits. It’s strange because parts of it are so incredibly, mind-bogglingly careless. What else can you say about a book in which the 14-year-old heroine observes that she is “nine years away from a quarter century”? Now, it’s possible that this is Lerner’s subtle way of suggesting that centuries will be shorter in the near future. Or maybe the book needed another edit before heading to publication.
The book’s plot, such as it is, involves Edie Stein, a contest in
the aforementioned beauty contest (for the title of “Feminine Woman of Conscience,” natch), in which the events include not only rabbit slaughter, but also arousing a mechanical dummy and identifying a variety of chemicals. Lerner does well when describing the pageant events and Edie’s attempts to prepare for them, especially her attempts to reconcile the pageant’s emphasis on turning on men with her blossoming sexual feelings for the girl next door, Lana Grimaldi. Many of the
other characters also are interesting, including Edie’s unbalanced mother, wise grandmother and odd best friend, Fernando.
However, too much of her writing falls flat. For instance, one of the book’s running jokes is that nearly everything in Edie’s world is a synthetic version of the real thing – brand names include “Just Like Meat,” “Just Like Sheepskin” and “Just Like Strawberry Syrup” (hence, “Just Like Beauty.” Get it?). Using the joke once or twice would have been sufficient, but Lerner overuses it, so it just seems like a desperate attempt at sarcasm. There’s also a bizarre subplot involving a bunch of teenage boys with blowtorches who terrorize the beauty contestants, particularly the somewhat awkward, science-obsessed Edie. Clearly, the group is supposed to be a natural extension of the aggressive nature of today’s boys, but was there really a need to have them spray Edie with urine?
Some of the book’s unpleasantness isn’t Lerner’s fault, such as the fact that two other subplots, about a glamorous fire-bomber and a suicide cult are a little uncomfortable to read about in this day and age. However, Lerner is to blame for the fact that these portions of the novel seem somewhat vague and undeveloped, as does another plot thread about a grasshopper plague afflicting Edie’s world (although that at least has a good payoff).
Lerner has started off with a ripe satirical target, and she gets in a few good shots about what society considers an ideal woman, but the novel doesn’t quite gel. However, it is her first novel, so hopefully, her next work will be a little more beautiful.