The Book We're Talking About: 'Ugly Girls' By Lindsay Hunter

Ugly Girls: A Novel
by Lindsay Hunter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published November 4, 2014

What we think:

Hunter's first novel exposes the ugly truths about human desire while showing off her skill at crafting poignant scenes.

A few notable symptoms of sleep deprivation: confusion, false memories, mania, temper tantrums. To call the short, spastic chapters of Lindsay Hunter’s first novel sleep-deprived isn’t an insult -- her sentences, like her characters, are burning at both ends. They’re punchy and fascinating and planted firmly in the present.

Ugly Girls is Hunter’s first novel. As she states in the acknowledgements, she began as a poet, then found her home in flash fiction -- short stories that don’t exceed 2,000 words. Her background is evident, as her scenes are both quippy and psychologically deep.

The story follows a pair of teenage girls, Perry and Baby Girl, who ditch school to “borrow” cars from richer neighborhoods, a pastime that extends well into their nights. While Perry views their arrangement as a temporary thrill, Baby Girl values their escapades as a way to escape her grim home life, made grimmer after her admired older brother suffers a car accident and brain injury.

Aside from a desire to wrap their inner selves in an impenetrable shell of meanness, the girls share little in common. Perry’s vain, sexually active, and and envisions a promising future for herself. Baby Girl shaves her head and wears harsh makeup, hoping to repel those around her, but simultaneously hoping to be wanted in spite of her appearance.

These are not the BFFs brought to life in “The Stand,” Stephen King’s story of painfully close friendships formed and lost, in large part due to differences in social standing. While King muses that the relationships he had as a kid were the most valuable in his life, Perry and Baby Girl seem to constantly remind themselves that their companionship has an expiration date.

The tension between them results from jealousy and pity -- feelings that are exacerbated when both are messaged by a mysterious new Facebook friend, Jamey. Though his correspondences are riddled with typos and awkward phrasings, they become a catalyst for a blow-up between Perry and Baby Girl, who don’t realize that he’s not exactly who he says he is until it’s too late.

Though at first blush Hunter’s writing has all the elements of a story that’s been smoothed and workshopped to the point of lacking originality -- quirkily named characters, third person narration enlivened by mild colloquialisms -- the story is expertly paced and contains chapters that lend it layers of complexity. Some sections, for example, expose the inner thoughts of the troubled Jamey, or Perry’s well-meaning parents.

Regardless of how you feel about Hunter’s trendy stylistic choices, they inarguably suit the story she’s sharing, a story that hits a note that’s been missing from the chorus of existing feminist literature. Perry and Baby Girl aren’t striving to battle social norms -- they’re just fighting to make it through each day.

What other reviewers think:
The Chicago Tribune: "It's Hunter's exploration of the outlier that has earned her a reputation as a writer willing to explore what others avoid -- the ugly, unformed and unseen."

Kirkus: "In a haunting portrait of longing, Hunter forces the reader to relate to a wide array of human ugliness."

Who wrote it?
Lindsay Hunter is the author of Don't Kiss Me and Daddy's -- both short story collections. This is her first novel.

Who will read it?
Fans of flash fiction, stories about teens and young adults, and strong feminist voices.

Opening lines:
"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 her sad rag of a paycheck."

Notable passage:
"Lately it was like evenings could get dark on you before you knew it. Blink and the sky had pulled up its denim blanket. It wouldn't get fully dark for a long time, that denim deepening slowly into navy, and Jamey hated the wait. Reminded him of the time between dinner and lights out, where there wasn't nothing to do but choose between boredom and trouble."