“Ocean Watch has always been a spooky place. There’s something odd and female there. Hostile to the likes of us.”
“Yeah, us. Those of the male variety.”
—Unlovely, Celeste Conway
Nineteen-year-old Harley is from a mostly-blue-collar fishing village, a place where old friendships and old grudges never die; where people know not only their neighbors’ business, but their neighbors’ grandparents’ business. Like any coastal town, in the summer, it both benefits and suffers from an influx of wealthy people from away—benefits from the boost to the economy, suffers from the tourists’ snobbery and sense of entitlement. When it comes to Ocean Watch Academy, though—the ballet school on the hill overlooking the town—the us/them divide is so distinct, that even talking to an Academy girl is practically unthinkable. After all, guys who do that seem to end up bloody…and sometimes even dead.
Harley has wanted out since he was a kid—and, now that he’s in college, he’s achieved that goal. He lost his long-time sweetheart in the process—at one point, Mairin wanted out, too, but now she’s engaged to and pregnant by one of the most worthless guys in town—and so this summer, Harley does the unthinkable: he gets romantically involved with an Ocean Watch girl.
Unlovely plays on an old horror trope: the idea that evil is that much more scary when it inhabits a beautiful form. In this case, it’s tied to gender, too: It was sexist, he knew, but it seemed sort of odd and creepy for girls to do violent stuff like this. Especially such lovely girls, who looked so sweet and delicate with little, pink flowers in their hair. Despite introducing all of those meaty issues and elements—economic and social class, gender stereotypes, assumptions based on appearance, the evolution of friendship from childhood to adulthood, small town culture—Unlovely doesn’t explore any of them with particular depth. It’s not a standout, but it’s a mostly solid—I say “mostly” for a few reasons: dialogue along the lines of: “Yikes!” she uttered.; multiple references to one of the few characters of color as “exotic”; a character who uses the phrase “party hardy” entirely seriously; prose that has that generically self-conscious MLA feel—romantic horror story, and the Giselle imagery, while sometimes over-telegraphed, is especially effective.
A few sort-of read-alikes, all far more memorable:
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
The first few chapters of Unlovely, which deal with Harley watching the girls, have the same sort of voyeuristic feel as The Virgin Suicides, and both deal with the idea that one’s perception of other people does not always match the reality.
Tighter, by Adele Griffin
A retelling of The Turn of the Screw that features a wonderfully unreliable narrator. Another story on the ocean, another one that deals with a mysterious death, another one that deals with beauty and evil and madness.
September Girls, by Bennett Madison
THIS BOOK. Also set in a beach town, also about tourists and townies, also about gender and assumptions and internal vs. external. But whereas both books introduce a group of seemingly interchangeable girls, in September Girls they grow and evolve into distinct individuals, while in Unlovely, they lose what little individuality they began with. If you haven’t read September Girls, do—I remember some readers interpreting it as anti-feminist, but I read it as entirely and even passionately feminist. Whichever way you end up seeing it, there’s no denying that it’s gorgeously written.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.