I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish this charming, body positive tale of a 16 year-old at an inflection point in her life, trying to figure out what’s going on with her parents, her best friend, her sister, the boy she thinks she loves and the boy she most definitely does not love, over one tumultuous summer vacation.
Maisie Martin is worried that her parents are headed for a divorce as Mom takes her and her best friend Anna to Cobbers Bay for their traditional long Christmas break, leaving Dad at home. Dad claims to be absolutely swamped at work, but the fights and the silences and the ignored phone calls indicate a far deeper problem than just a busy newspaper season. Maisie tries to push her parents’ relationship out of the foreground of her mind by focusing on helping cheer up Anna, whose boyfriend Dan just cheated on her. But when Anna develops a connection with Sebastian, the childhood friend Maisie has loved for years but whom she can barely talk to for nerves nowadays, Maisie is left questioning everything she knows about relationships.
Luckily, she has her Discovery Journal to help her sort through this mess. Initially reluctant to do what’s essentially a homework assignment, she finds that writing about her day is surprisingly therapeutic, and confides in the journal things she doesn’t even want to say out loud. This is especially helpful when she ends up joining the Cobbers Bay Miss Teen Queen Beauty Pageant, the same one her beautiful, slender older sister won three years ago, right about when the girls stopped talking to one another. Maisie has felt fat and unlovely for years — not helped by her image-conscious mother — but will this summer and a beauty pageant, of all things, help her learn to love herself?
Like Maisie, I grew up with difficult relationships with my mother and sister, not because I was fat but because my mother worried I’d become fat like my father’s side of the family (she’s a disaster, my mum.) So I’ve always felt fat even before I actually gained the weight that wouldn’t come off after two miscarriages in the last four years. Weirdly, feeling terrible about how I looked while acknowledging the reality that I’m actually quite good-looking helped as I grew up and became more and more inured to my mother’s outrageous statements — I was honestly very lucky to escape with my self-esteem as healthy as it is. Still, I would have loved to have had a book like What I Like About Me when I was a teenager. Maisie learns not only to accept but to revel in herself, and discovers that it’s a continuous process this battle we have with the way we look, especially in a consumer society that seeks to dictate what’s desirable and what’s permissible. What’s actually important, Maisie learns, is that we’re comfortable in the skin we’re in and that we stop defeating ourselves by second-guessing what other people might think about us. Sure, there are going to be loud, vicious assholes who’re so insecure with themselves that they have to tear other people down, but the vast majority of people either don’t care what you look like or think you look pretty freaking great.
As a middle-aged lady with kids, this was so wonderful to read. I can only imagine how much more essential and affirming this would be for a teenager with body image issues. Hard to believe that this is Jenna Guillaume’s debut novel, so assured is the writing and the deft, clever plotting that shies away from tropiness by really working through the rush of feelings and reasonings that lead Maisie to make the decisions she does. I’m so excited to be able to read and review her second novel here soon, too!
What I Like About Me by Jenna Guillaume was published April 1 2020 by Peachtree Publishing and is available from all good booksellers, including