“Can you fall in love with a writer at first read?” I asked myself when reading the first few lines of Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin. I am usually wary of things that are too easy to like, of too good first impressions, but the beginning of this book it’s so strange and engaging, that after two paragraphs I was already telling myself, “Um, I think I’m going to like this book very much.”
This book was one of the mystery books from the library, exactly the kind I was hoping to find: new, unexpected and by an author I did not know before. I think the reason this book is so easy to like is that the voice of the character is fully developed from the very first pages and also because her voice is really unforgettable.
Big Girl Small tells the story of Judy Lohden, a 16 year old girl who falls in love at first sight. She is a brilliant student, not only gifted academically but talented artistically as well. She gets accepted into the prestigious performing arts high school Darcy Academy. She has great friends and loving and understanding parents. She also has two adorable brothers, one older and one younger. Her life is pretty much perfect but for one minor problem: Judy is 3 feet nine inches tall. As the story is told from Judy’s point of view, this fact is tackled with gusto and humour from the start. We become witness to the difficulties of being her size but also to her wonderful personality and mind-she is special indeed, but because of her humour and outlook on life.
As the story begins, we learn that Judy is escaping from a terrible incident in her recent past, and the novel develops by slowly revealing the events that led her to be in her current situation. Despite being very smart and talented, Judy is also just sixteen and is, understandably, totally ignorant of love, relationships and sex. She is therefore totally vulnerable when she falls in love with the cutest guy in the school. DeWoskin makes the boy as dreamy as he can be: he is all sleepy eyes, mystery and charm. He is also genuinely nice to Judy and seemingly unfazed by her size. “He was like a book you stay all night to finish” says Judy of him, and we understand what she means: she must discover everything about him until she knows him inside out-that’s what crushes and first loves are all about. They develop an awkward friendship and slowly she discovers some disturbing things about his past. This friendship leads her down a path that she would never have imagined but which is presented by DeWoskin as completely, and sadly, plausible.
I loved Judy’s mixture of depth and superficiality, as in her love and admiration for her American Literature teacher and her mild obsession with being a contestant on American Idol. I also loved her perfectly normal love and curiosity for boys and school life, for trying to figure out her place in the school universe. I loved that she was a good student and a bit of a geek. But what I loved most about Judy is that, even in her worst, most humiliating moments, she never has an ounce of self-pity. She suffers and torments herself with regret, but she accepts her fate and the role she played in bringing it about.
Alas, as the object of Judy’s love loses its shine, so does the story as we get closer to the end. It seems as if DeWoskin lost her way at some point in the story and did not know how to conclude it. Still, Judy’s voice is wonderful and the parts of the book that I loved, I loved very much. So the less shiny ending of Big Girl Small did not stop me from immediately looking for other books by DeWoskin, and as soon as I finished it, I checked out Repeat after Me, one of her earlier novels.
Repeat after Me is about a young ESL teacher who falls in love with one of her students, a beautiful and tortured Chinese dissident in the late 1980’s. The story takes place in New York, but it’s very much about discovering China and the momentous changes it went through after the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square.
This story, similar to Big Girl Small, is built around a terrible event that it’s only revealed close to the end of the novel. Jumping between past (1989 New York) and present (early 2000’s in China), DeWoskin shows us the path toward healing the main character goes through in order to survive.
Much like Judy, Aysha is smart, strong and resilient. Also just like Judy, Aysha never shows any self-pity despite going through some very difficult and tragic situations in her life. She also assumes full responsibilities for her actions, a fact that made me like this character very much. However, unlike Judy, Aysha is not really as healthy and as well-adjusted as she should be. Thus, the overall tone of this novel is darker and completely different to that of Big Girl Small.
The mystery of Da Ge, the object of Aysha’s love, is enhanced by the fact that theirs is a relationship built on translation, not only of language, but of culture and feelings. Aysha is originally attracted to Da Ge’s rebellious attitude in class. She quickly realizes that his English is much more advanced than the rest of the class and that his story, and the reason he finds himself in her class, is very different from the rest of his classmates. They slowly and awkwardly become friends, then lovers, but the love, unfortunately, gets lost in translation as well. As Aysha tries to save Da Ge from his past, she herself gets trapped in her own web of past traumas and regrets. Thankfully, the story brings us constantly to the present, where we get to see how Aysha has survived her past and is slowly moving towards a happier future.
For me, the most beautiful and insightful parts of this book are those about the discovery of another culture, of getting inside a language in order to understand the smells, the sights and the tastes of a city you don’t know, but also of a soul that you don’t know. Da Ge and Aysha’s love story is strange and unexpected, but like Judy Lodhen, also completely unforgettable. Although neither of these books was perfect, I loved DeWoskin’s strong hand throughout. In fact, maybe my crush with her and her wonderful voice has just begun.