Riley Rose. What a name and what a personality.
She’s complex, beguiling and difficult for others to understand. Her outward appearance and verbal flippancy belies the depth of her emotions. She charmed me with her always unexpected and often cynical insights.
In Everything Beautiful, Australian author Simmone Howell created a character who’s a seemingly tough teen with a rough exterior, yet inside is soft, tender and vulnerable.
She’s overweight. She’s experiencing an acute loss after the death of her mother. She’s having difficulty adjusting to her father’s new love, a Christian woman who’s a radical contrast to everything that was her family. Riley Rose is experimenting with sex. She’s found a great new friend who’s a perfect partner in any new adventure they embark on.
In other words, Riley Rose is one vulnerable teenager.
With a push and a hard nudge from his new girlfriend, Riley Rose’s father sends her to a Christian retreat. Spirit Ranch Holiday Camp, a camp for spiritual growth and enlightenment, ushers in a new world for the rebellious self-proclaimed atheist. What kind of experience is this for a cigarette smoking, alcohol imbibing, troubling-making and delightfully smart mouthed kid?
Most of the campers have been coming for their spiritual renewal every summer for years. They know each other well and are keenly aware of their place in a hierarchy they’ve crafted. Most of them are full of their own self-righteous glory; most are bullies; most are intolerant; most would love to see the smart-mouthed, offensive, chubby new girl go right back where she came from—the sooner the better.
For Riley, sooner is a bus ticket ferreted away in her belongings, a plan to skip out halfway through the week, catch a bus back to her best friend and on to a party, drinking and falling into the arms of her much hoped-for crush.
But, the best laid plans of Riley Rose and her best friend become another bit of detritus piling up like so many useless relics.
Life isn’t simple and neither are the campers.
They’ve been divided into groups assigned to strengthen one another. Strength: It’s needed in what becomes a swamp of careless words, actions and heartbreak. Riley Rose’s group—the Honeyeaters, named after a critically endangered Australian bird—at first view Riley as not only a member of an endangered subgroup of humans, but one that’s the more quickly extinct, the better.
Into this mix comes Dylan. His history is a bit sketchy but his present situation’s clear. He was injured after last summer’s spiritual renewal and is now a paraplegic. Add to this a gay group leader, a lovely and shy roommate, and a whole cast of characters who are as quirky as the camp itself. No one’s truly normal! It illuminates this book like a spotlight in a darkened stadium.
Everything Beautiful is not for the faint of heart.
It’s raw. It’s richly detailed. It’s realistic. And, it’s finely crafted in a way that will not only appeal to its teen audience, but adults will also connect with Riley Rose’s experiences and feelings. A message for all ages lies in the heart of the story. It’s about reconciliation, love, forgiveness and shared humanity. Softening the harsher aspects of life in a spiritual camp, a welcome touch of humor and irony lighten the story.
Ultimately though, Everything Beautiful is about hope.
Dylan’s legs will not take him where he yearns to go. Riley Rose cannot go back where her memories send her. Hopes and dreams abound for all of the characters. Each must find their own unique path forward.
The lyrical prose gave me pause. It was as if I were reading a lovely poem. It also made me smile at Riley Rose and her whimsical humor and actions. And, it made my lips turn down in sadness at the sometimes ruthless insensitivity Riley Rose faced daily.
The themes in the Everything Beautiful offer a refreshening play on the notion that most people are good. This book is truly everything beautiful.