Readers familiar with Lindsay Hunter’s short fiction are well aware of the bursts of electricity packed into what are often only a few pages. In two collections of stories—the small press release Daddy’s and FSG’s Don’t Kiss Me—Hunter lays claim to being one of the premiere creators of voice-driven, often first-person narratives while chronicling an assortment of characters whose lives are far from luxurious. Hunter’s first novel, Ugly Girls, employs a similar format, composing short chapters that while having the feel of short stories ultimately work in favor of crafting a much long, richer story. Unlike a majority of her short stories though, Hunter writes Ugly Girls in third-person, and while the switch might jar long time followers, the shift in perspective gives Hunter greater range to explore a cast of unique and fascinating characters. The raw and vivid language that makes Hunter such a distinctive talent remain, however, and such trademarks make Ugly Girls the perfect novel for adventurous readers in search of wild, unexpected, shockingly-original fiction.
From the onset of the novel, Hunter establishes a clear tone Ugly Girls follows for the remaining 200+ pages:
Perry and Baby Girl were in the car they’d stolen not half an hour before. A red Mazda. Looked fancier than it was, had to use hand cranks to put the windows down. Perry gathered it probably belonged to someone who wanted to look fancy but couldn’t squeeze enough out of her sad rag of a paycheck. Like how for years Myra, her mother, kept a dinged-up Corvette because it was red and a two-door. Couldn’t even get the tiny trunk open without a crowbar. Then Jim came along with his logic and calm and sense and had it scrapped. Myra drove a mint-green Tercel now. Four doors. No dings.
Hunter’s two leads, Perry and Baby Girl would appear to be at the opposite end of the high school spectrum, Perry the attractive teen who catches the eye of most men and Baby Girl, who shaves much of her head and does her best “to look hideous. Untouchable.” But both girls find a bond in rebellion, sneaking out of their respective houses for joyrides, meet-ups with anonymous men, and, as the novel takes shape, the promise of a new relationship with a stranger named Jamey who both have met online.
Their budding relationship with Jamey propels the narrative conflict of Ugly Girls, and as Hunter moves between perspectives, readers come to recognize Jamey’s sinister nature and the danger that involves not only Perry and Baby Girl but everyone else around them. The brief chapters alternating between several points of view work best as the novel increases in tension, and near the midway point of Ugly Girls, readers will appreciate the way Hunter manages to continually push Perry and Baby Girl into further conflict not only with the outside world but with one another.
Also of note, Hunter’s expertise with language should appeal to many readers. There’s a feeling of simplicity in much of Hunter’s prose as she never extends beyond the vocabulary of the people she writes of. And yet while seemingly unassuming, Hunter still succeeds in capturing an image in just the right tone: “The rising sun the color of pineapple candy, no more than a fingernail at the horizon” comes early in the novel as Perry and Baby Girl wrap up an overnight joyriding excursion; later, in describing Perry’s stepfather Jim from the Jamey’s perspective, Hunter writes that he “was made of engine parts and cogs and second hands on the inside, this man everyone would tell you was one of the good ones right up until you felt a sting across the back of your knees.” The language is, perhaps to some, vulgar in places but yet also rather authentic, given the characters Hunter writes about, and although some may find it off-putting, readers willing to challenge themselves will find a great appreciation in the way Hunter crafts flawed but believable characters.
In her third book and first novel, Lindsay Hunter continues to be at the forefront of a group of distinct and unique female voices establishing themselves in American fiction, and like the works of Amelia Gray, Alissa Nutting, Mary Miller, and Elizabeth Ellen, Ugly Girls offers a challenging and rewarding reading experience likely to be enjoyed by the most vigorous and audacious of readers.
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter (Farrar, Straus & Giroux | ISBN 9780374533861 | November 4, 2014)