Riley Rose, atheist and bad girl, has been tricked into attending Spirit Ranch, a Christian camp. There she meets Dylan Kier, alumni camper and recent paraplegic, who arrives with a chip on his shoulder and a determination to perfect all of his bad habits. United in their personal suffering and in their irritation at their fellow campers, they turn the camp inside out as they question the meaning of belief systems, test their faith in each other, and ultimately settle a debate of the heart.
Sixteen-year-old Riley Rose doesn’t believe in much. Since her mother’s death Riley has been on a ‘downward spiral’, she has become ‘rebellious’ and her behaviour warrants ‘concern’ from her father and his new ‘girlfriend’, Norma. So they’re sending Riley to Spirit Ranch, a Christian camp. Riley will have to leave behind her best friend, Chloe, and any designs she has on cute boy crush, Ben. She has to sleep in a cabin with a prissy Christian bitch called Fleur and a quiet God-fearing doormat called Sarita.
But Spirit Ranch has its up-side, like zealot camp leader Craig of the Adonis good looks. Then there are camp regulars, siblings Olive and Bird, who blossom under Riley’s protective wing.
But best of all is Dylan, the only other person who doesn’t want to be here as bad as Riley. Because Dylan used to be a regular Christ-loving, bible-thumping Spirit Rancher . . . until he lost the use of his legs. Now he lives in a wheelchair, and hates the world. Riley can relate.
‘Everything Beautiful’ was the 2008 young adult novel from award-winning Australian writer, Simmone Howell.
This novel is sublime. It’s a camp/pilgrimage/road-trip novel about a girl who starts out with no questions, but winds up with infinite curiosity.
When we meet her, Riley Rose has a self-diagnosed ‘Mum-shaped hole’ in her life. Ever since her mother’s death Riley has become a little bit wild. She befriended her school’s resident slut, Chloe, and started flouting authority and rules. Riley’s demise into rebelliousness is in direct contrast to her father’s re-discovery of God. Once a lapsed Catholic, her father now attends church on a regular basis and is dating a fellow devout. Their solution to Riley’s hurt and acting out is Spirit Ranch, their church’s yearly camp for all good Christian children . . . Riley goes, begrudgingly, and with a list of unchanging truths in her life;
I believe in Chloe and chocolate.
I believe the best part is always before.
I believe that most girls are shifty and most guys are dumb.
I believe the more you pill, the less you are.
I don’t believe in life after death or diuretics or happy endings.
I don’t believe anything good can come from this.
But Spirit Ranch isn’t exactly accepting. Riley is an instant target, a walking blasphemy whose weight issues (she’s fat, deal with it) make her easy prey and her atheism turns her into a plague amongst the campers. The only people who actually like Riley are Olive and Bird, bullied siblings who find solace in Riley’s easy acceptance and defence. Craig, the hunky camp leader who just wants to get into Riley’s double-D’s . . . and Dylan, the paraplegic boy whose sadness calls to Riley’s own.
I loved this book. Riley is a fast and frenetic teen whose deep sadness is masked by false bravado. She’s a fantastic leading lady, not least because Howell has written a taboo in making her F-A-T. Today Tonight obesity-watch reports remind us every day that Australia is climbing up the tubby ladder, yet so few teens in contemporary YA reflect this physicality.
The Christian camp setting was hilariously sublime. Reminiscent of one of my all-time favourite movies, ‘Saved!’ (2004). Howell reveals that not all Christians are good, but not all atheists are without hope either. Howell isn’t bashing religion in this book; she’s just showing its myriad sides. Sure, the Christian teens in this book aren’t exactly keeping up their ‘love thy neighbour’ teachings, but this is more reflective of a William Golding exploration into pack behaviour than commentary on the decay of worship.
But the real Hail Mary of ‘Everything Beautiful’ is Dylan. Dylan is trapped in a wheelchair after an undisclosed accident that everyone at Spirit Ranch is speculating about. Rumour has it he jumped 16 storeys. Another tale tells of a surfing accident. But only Dylan knows the truth, and he’s not telling. Riley is intrigued . . . both by Dylan’s silence about the accident, and his clear affinity for her and their Spirit Ranch plight. Dylan is one of my new favourite characters – I loved his contrasts and inherent enigma. I loved that he was full of snark and spirit, that he felt cheated in life but still wore a cross around his neck;
I’m glad it was Dylan who laughed first. Once he did I felt myself unravel. I giggled and he giggled. We were the experiment. And then there came a time when we weren’t laughing. When we locked eyes and breathed each other’s breath. Ohmystars! The firmament shakes and then everything settles. In the end everything settles.
‘Everything Beautiful’ is more proof that there’s something in the water for Australian YA. A quirky contemporary that introduces us to a feisty and furious girl called Riley, who is unbelieving and full of hurt. I loved this book, and from now on I will be worshipping at the word altar of Simmone Howell – anything she writes, I do so solemnly swear to devour.