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Just Like Beauty

Lisa Lerner

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-374-18962-8

279 Pages ; $24.00

Date Reviewed: 03-11-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel



Science Fiction, General Fiction

02-28-02, 03-11-02

In a world filled with imitation, with mimicry, with faux fur and fake meat, it gets pretty hard to nail down just what's real. Counter-intuitively, emotions, fleeting feelings that flow from one form into another with no fixed point in between, become the only certifiably "real" objects. In 'Just Like Beauty', first novelist Lisa Lerner nails an emotional state to the page with a strong narrative voice and loopy imagination. 'Just Like Beauty' looks just like science fiction, with mutant grasshoppers, intelligent bunnies and lots of funny made-up brand names. To many male readers, 'Just Like Beauty' will gain an additional feeling of unfamiliarity because it goes where no man has gone before -- into the mind of a teenaged girl. But make no mistake about it. Though 'Just Like Beauty' may be set in some indefinite future, it's about the timeless, placeless process of growing up, of stepping beyond the safety of your parents' home as you learn that home itself is made-up, not real, not the real world. 'Just Like Beauty' does all this with style to spare and a silly grin.

As 'Just Like Beauty' begins, Edie Stein is fourteen and training for the Deansville Feminine Woman of Conscience Pageant under the tutelage of her mother. She something of a science whiz, so the Large Number Estimation and Mystery Powders events are no worry to her. She does have problems with the Sacrificial Rabbit event. She's become attached to her genius bunny, having taught it to wave at the judges and bonded with it in the process. She's also worried about her attraction to her neighbor, Lana Grimaldi, and a suicide cult that calls itself Happy Endings. As with most fourteen year olds, there seems to be no end of things to worry about. Grasshoppers the size of rats barely enter her consciousness.

And that's where the ersatz starts. Lerner is so focused on Edie and her problems, that the reader has a bit of a hard time wrapping their brain around what's happening in the world at large. But, Edie's voice is so strong and so enjoyable that the reader rapidly stops caring about how our world became Edie's. It's not nearly as important as the last thing Lana said to Edie, or the on-going argument between Edie's parents. Lerner does a fantastic job at painting Edie's world as if it were a weird, feminine theme park. Her details ring true at every level. They don't quite cohere to form a whole world, but then, what fourteen year old has a coherent picture of the world? There's definitely a method to Lerner's madness. It's almost as if one of the housewives from 'Edward Scissorhands' has written sci-fi novel.

The world that Lerner does create, with a totally convincing air, is the interior universe of a fourteen year old girl. She explores the nooks and crannies with an enthusiasm for some subjects that could only happen in the Future with a Capital F. She uses her device to write what may come to be seen as the classic 21st century coming of age novel for women. And she leavens the heavy load that this could become by a quirky sense of humor, a light prose style that keeps the novel eminently readable.

Lerner doesn't totally ignore the SF aspects of the world that Edie lives in. There's just enough background to bring things to ground when they need be there. In the course of the novel, Edie does do some growing, and as her understanding of the world around her deepens, the reader's does as well. She's also wrapped up a clever little plot in her Beauty Pageant tale. Don't expect this novel to bear any semblance to the number of Beauty Pageant exposes and satires we've seen on screen recently. 'Just Like Beauty' has been grown from a very different seed planted in very different soil. Lerner's novel is more about families and feelings than competition and cosmetics. But it's also whimsically imaginative, with a light touch in language that leaves the reader laughing and wanting more. 'Just Like Beauty' may be ersatz SF, but it's the real deal when it comes to the 'Entertaining and Weird Novel' category of the competition.