Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin
The first half of Big Girl Small is a finely tuned novel about young adults. The second half is a young adult novel. My enjoyment of the former propelled me through the latter, but I was left wondering why it had so drastically changed course.
Judy Lohden is a 16-year-old dwarf with an incredible singing voice. She transfers to a private performing arts academy, and the novel follows her first months. Being the new girl in school is a deeply awkward experience made more conspicuous by the fact that she’s 3’9”. Judy, of course, is used to life being awkward. As the narrator, she recounts the trials of trying to fit in with the savvy experience of someone who never really does.
This was a crafty choice on DeWoskin’s part. The teenage narrators of novels frequently expound on how unfair and shallow the world is, and how no one really understands them. It can be so tiresome, listening to them whine. Judy isn’t whining -- her assessment of the unfair, shallow world has credibility. Her parents and two brothers are all of average height, so apart from a little person conference she attends in the summers, she’s a constant outsider.
And what are fictions' outsiders for if not keen observation? Judy seems to go out of her way to understand people, instinctively distrusting the finality of high school stereotypes. DeWoskin throws a lot of stock characters her way -- goth girls, beautiful rich girls, brooding artistic guys, cocky athletes -- and Judy watches them. She catches the moments when they exemplify their roles and the moments they break out of them. This oscillation is what the first half of the book becomes about -- the way what you know you are and what other people think you are interact and inform each other.
It’s an engaging anthropology of a high school community, through Judy’s sharp lens, but could have been too dispassionate, if it weren’t for how cute the boys were. Judy likes boys, she wants to figure them out. She has this to say, after seeing a few of them wrestle around on the grass at a party:
Teenage boys are hybrids of people and monkeys. This kind of interaction was a daily occurrence at school: the homoerotic banter followed by physical contact, followed by someone calling the whole thing what it was (love, desire for contact, although put in fouler terms, usually), and then an embarrassed retreat back to the solo corners of teenage boy-dom… I sometimes think… that life would be easier for all of us if boys just had sex with each other… I mean, other than ruining their idea of themselves, it wouldn’t cost anyone else anything. Then they wouldn’t have to use girls, or sex with girls, as a way to bond with each other instead of bonding with the girls.
That touch of bitterness you hear comes from the fact that, as a result of Judy’s infatuation with the hottest guy in school, something horrible happens to her. She’s telling her story after the fact, examining the months that led up to her devastation looking for clues, until her narration catches up with the present. At that point, the book focuses narrowly on emotional aftermath.
Although the structure of the novel calls for it -- the honeymoon phase followed by disillusionment -- so much of what makes the first half great is dropped completely from the second, and foreshadowing doesn’t make for cohesion. The second half is just as well-written, but to be frank, I didn’t want to read it. I wanted to keep reading the first half of the book -- the book about being an outsider, the process of growing apart from your parents, teenage friendships and their power for good and evil, having crushes on boys and good teachers. I didn’t want to read about the melodrama of victimhood.
I have mulled over this for several weeks. Was my reaction to the introduction of trauma shallow? Was I merely upset that my pleasant Saturday afternoon read had turned bleak, and that characters I liked were being mistreated? I think my disappointment stems from how rare a realistic portrayal of a well-adjusted girl’s life is, and how common the portrayal of teenage grief. I’m not against the introduction of conflict, but was put off by the scale.
DeWoskin’s greatest strength is the multiplicity of her characters. The multiplicity of her book wasn’t necessary, but neither was it damning. What I loved about Big Girl Small was pushed to the background after a while, but it was still there, compelling enough that it’s still with me.
Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux