Just Finished…Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

It’s taken me a while to put ‘fingers to laptop’ (somehow doesn’t sound as good as ‘pen to paper’ does it?) on this book, partly because I’ve found it difficult to separate my thoughts on the story in itself from the split reaction Beautiful Disaster has had among other reviewers (very few people give it a middle-of-the-road rating  – it’s a love it or hate it book it would seem).

Firstly – the story – the characters are certainly YA, although I would honestly characterise them as ‘older YA’ – they are not 19 year-olds in the Bella Swan mould, but pretty ‘real’ from a drinking, partying, first-time-away-from-home, frequently reckless side of things. This is why the synopsis features a clear indication of suitable audience (it did when I purchased for Kindle at least).

Abby and Travis are certainly not perfect individuals – and at times border on having some serious personal flaws – however, (aside from being a fighter for money [Travis] and poker player supremo [Abby]) they are reasonably realistic in their behaviour: they behave quite randomly in their relationship, antagonising each other one minute, then in perfect bliss and harmony the next. I certainly saw a number of similar ‘car crash’ couples like this during my late teens and early twenties, who would veer from one end of the spectrum to another with seemingly endless frequency. Some people will never experience this, or will do it to a lesser degree, then ‘grow out of it’. There are others still who will remain in couplings like these where volatility appear to be the basis of attraction and even the relationship itself.

Abby and Travis quite often lack self-awareness and this drives many of their misunderstandings and subsequent conflicts. But this for me, felt realistic. When you’re really learning about yourself for the first time and what it is like to be away from family influences and your past you do some weird things – that’s because it’s all new. You decide something because it seems like the best thing to do – maybe you think that’s how ‘grown-ups’ behave, or you saw it on TV and want to emulate that behaviour in your own life as you begin to understand where your own morals lie. You certainly get lots of things wrong, but that is the whole point – it’s a time to make mistakes and the right choices, but there’ll always be a mixture of the two.

So for a book rating I’d say 3.75/5 – I enjoyed reading it, got through it quickly and I engaged with the characters. Overall – the book flows well, the dialogue is quick and the dramatic episodes are fun. As a YA romance/coming of age book it works. Yes there are some spelling issues (latter half of the book) but you can see for the majority of readers that doesn’t bother them. The plot is a rollercoaster ride with Abby and Travis veering from one experience to another as they work out who they are and what they want – I liked the uni life and parties the best. The Vegas episode was fine, but it didn’t especially add to the story for me, but I can also see why it was there. Travis and Abby are ‘big’ characters and so you get some spectacular fireworks around them – which you’ll know from other reviews is probably one of the most divisive features for reviewers.

So…the reaction of readers…I’ve read a lot of the reviews on Goodreads before I decided to read this book – I found it interesting how clear the split was: love it (majority), hate it (few, but with a passion it seems). Because of the negative reviews I was quite wary of tackling Beautiful Disaster – I expected incessant misogyny and violence with a dippy female focal point. I did not see it that way.

Travis undoubtedly has some very odd ideas about ladies – but as you are shown throughout the book, the female characters choose the paths they take, they might not always like the end results (perhaps being shown the door after a one night stand without having your number asked for…) but they chose the path nonetheless. I don’t want to get too deep into this – but I do think that ultimately feminism is about having freedom of choice – and the women in Beautiful Disaster have this – they don’t always make the most prudent choices, but they have that ability. As a character Travis begins to see women in a different way, because Abby behaves differently. Things begin clearly black and white, but end up being confusingly – but realistically – grey.

The reality of life is that you cannot change the way a person views the world – someone like Travis perhaps – by telling them to do something. Most people learn through their experiences. We might moderate our behaviour for right and wrong, but it doesn’t always mean that we believe in how we behave.

In the book girls frequently put themselves in a particular role and subsequently get judged on how they’ve behaved. Is it ‘right’ that girls are referred to as skanks, sluts, bitches, etc.? No, it isn’t ‘right’, but it is REAL. Look around at the girl-on-girl bullying and the insults used; look at how girls divide themselves between groups and friends and how we talk about each other. Look at how women are portrayed in the media, in film and in music. It happens and it happens all the time. On several occasions in Beautiful Disaster a character criticises another for using that kind of language, demonstrating that it is not acceptable. It still comes up though, because in reality it comes up every day.

You also see that in a role-reversal Travis suffers for his ‘man whore’ label. There is a whole load of baggage that goes with his escapades; a perception that other guys have of him and it frequently derails his early relationship with Abby. How much of the Travis you hear about is real and how much an embellishment? Compare the man you see 1:1 with Abby and his close friends and the Travis that other people see and she hears about?

The violence is another area people seem to have issue with. Beautiful Disaster takes this into quite a lot of detail, because it forms a picture of who Travis is. What book staring an underground fighting ring champion wouldn’t be violent? Me personally – would I date him? Not at all – I don’t do volatile people really and pounding on people’s faces when you don’t agree with them is reasonably out of control from my perspective. Do I like those aspects of his character – again, not really. But if Abby chooses that kind of guy – with all the associated risks and drama, then that’s her choice.

For me the most interesting thing about Beautiful Disaster isn’t the events but the characters. Travis and Abby are both flawed, which makes their behaviour unpredictable. The book is about the flaws and the impact they have on life. Writing a story about these kind of characters is what makes this book different: Travis is controversial because of his behaviour and the extreme lengths it runs to; something that may be hinted at in other YA books, but is taken and developed here. It is laid bare for you to examine. Is there much difference really between Edward Cullen fantasising about flinging Mike into a wall just for thinking about Bella in a way he deems inappropriate and Travis thumping someone in the lunchroom? The raw emotions and desires are there in many characters we deem acceptable, they just have more control.

I don’t think there is a right and wrong with this book – it all comes down to your reaction to the characters. I can see why some people really didn’t like them; I found them interesting more than likeable I suppose. Writing a story about someone who is controversial is something that many authors shy away from, perhaps because we lump together liking a book with liking the main people in it? Whatever the reason I think Beautiful Disaster is interesting for this reason. Difficult characters are something you see more often in ‘adult’ fiction than YA, which still leans towards standard goodie/baddie characters. I’d be interested to see what Travis’s perspective shows, (the book is currently being written I believe) – it might be deeper than people expect.

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On a connected note – Jamie McGuire, author of Beautiful Disaster and several other YA books – will be joining us on the blog in March (hopefully) with a guest post on why she chose to write about a controversial character. So if you’d like to know she has to say on the subject, look out for her post.

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