What I Like About Me, Jenna Guillaume, Pan Australia, 2019
From the publisher: You know those movies where teenagers have the summer of their lives?
This summer is probably not going to be that.
Here lies Maisie Martin, dead from embarrassment, aged sixteen.
The last thing Maisie Martin thought she’d be doing this summer is entering a beauty pageant.
Not when she’s spent most of her life hiding her body from everyone.
Not when her Dad is AWOL for Christmas and her best friend starts going out with the boy she’s always loved.
But Maisie’s got something to prove. And she’s not going to let anything or anyone – including herself – hold her back.
I have a lot of nostalgia for Australian summers. Growing up in North West Tasmania, in a tiny town by the beach, most of my memories of summer holidays involve hot sand and cool water; Frosty Fruits and beach shop potato cakes. We lived in our bathers, often wearing them back into town, to buy slush puppies and bakery buns, when we were done swimming. Summers were, for me, all about friends, sunshine and junk food, it seems!
And romantic comedies. I grew up in the heyday of the rom-com – my favourites were Ten Things I Hate About You, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. And, although Dirty Dancing was a bit before my time, one of my good friends loved it, so it was very much a part of my cultural upbringing, too.
So, it was with an enormous amount of excitement that I came to read What I Like About Me, the debut novel of journalist Jenna Guillaume.
The fact that the book was described to me as “Dirty Dancing meets Dumplin’, but set at the Australian beach” didn’t hurt, either.
I have to admit, when I discovered that the book centred on body positivity and a beauty pageant, I did have a moment of thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if the author read Dumplin’ before she wrote this.”
I’ve since learned that she didn’t, and the similarities in plot are pure coincidence. In the end, luckily, it doesn’t matter at all. I adored Dumplin’ with my whole soul, but I never felt like I was reading a knock-off novel, here. What I Like About Me is wholly its own creature, and it is a delightful one.
I fell in love, immediately, with Maisie. Her voice was so completely distinctive and so very real. Quite often, in YA books, I’m acutely aware that I’m reading an adult’s view of teenager-hood. I can hear adult inflections in the protagonist’s voice and characters use phrases that seem completely un-teenage (even if the author peppers the dialogue with words like “lit”, “BAE” and “on fleek” – many of which I’m sure are already out of fashion as I write this). Maisie was not like this. She drew me in from the very first page and had me laughing, crying and fist-pumping along with her.
At first, I was worried that her story would be trite and – worse – perhaps even detrimental to the body positivity cause. When her best friend, Anna, tells her “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” I was cursing at my book.
But this is Guillaume’s cleverness at play. While Maisie might, at the outset of the book, consider Anna’s words a compliment, by the end of the book – with the help of her sister, Eva’s, new girlfriend – she has realised that her body is fat and it is beautiful. And she owns both.
A perfect foil for Maisie – and a gentle assistant on her journey to self-love – is the utterly gorgeous Beamer. I have not “shipped” a couple this hard since Neville and Luna. Beamer is an utter delight. He reminded me so much of boys I went to school with – class clowns with gentle hearts – and I fell completely head-over-heels for him. Almost as hard as I fell for Eva’s girlfriend, Bess – a tattooed pin-up who has walked her own path to loving her body.
But every character in this story is so well-drawn. I also particularly liked fashion designer Leila, who creates eccentric outfits to showcase Maisie’s beauty. Even the parents were engaging and nuanced, going through their own very adult struggles as their children went through their own coming-of-age challenges.
And through all of it there is the hot Australian summer. Though this book is set in contemporary times, with smart-phones and texting, but the book still manages to feel like it might have been set when I was a teenager (the eighties and nineties pop culture references helped with this, too). It was nice to have the feeling that teenagers today might not be so very different from the ones who spent their summers at the beach, twenty years ago.
This gentle, yet laugh-out-loud funny book manages to be a social commentary, with a diverse cast of characters, while never feeling didactic or forced. It is, at its heart, a love song to summer and young romance and every moment of it felt like sun-kissed perfection.