Review: The Art Of Getting Stared At by Laura Lanngston

Title The Art Of Getting Stared At
Author Laura Langston
Published September 9th, 2014 by Razorbill Canada
Pages 288 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Romance
Part of a Series? No
Source & Format Received an advance reader copy from the publisher for review (Thanks Penguin Canada!), Paperback
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters

Sixteen-year-old Sloane is given the biggest opportunity of her life — a chance for a film school scholarship — but she only has less than two weeks to produce a video. She also has to work with Isaac Alexander, an irresponsible charmer with whom she shares an uneasy history.

Then comes a horrifying discovery: Sloane finds a bald spot on her head. The pink patch, no bigger than a quarter, shouldn’t be there. Neither should the bald spots that follow. Horror gives way to devastation when Sloane is diagnosed with alopecia areata. The autoimmune disease has no cause, no cure and no definitive outcome. The spots might grow over tomorrow or they might be there for life. She could become completely bald. No one knows.

Determined to produce her video and keep her condition secret, Sloane finds herself turning into the kind of person she has always mocked: someone obsessed with their looks. She’s also forced to confront a painful truth: she is as judgmental as anyone else…but she saves the harshest judgments for herself.

“The dark pit of panic, the one lodged permanently behind my breastbone, thumps good morning against my rib cage.
Remember? it mocks. Remember, remember?
As if I could forget. The duffle slides from my fingers and hits the floor with a soft plop.
The pale pillowslip is covered with curls and swirls of hair. It reminds me of a song Mom used to sing. Something about bows and flows of angel hair. And ice cream castles in the air. But this isn’t a song. That’s not angel hair. And I’m not a little girl dreaming of ice cream castles.”

Long or short. Straight or curly. Blonde or brunette. Whether we we realize it, consciously or unconsciously, for most our hair is a vital part of our identity, an outward means of expressing ourselves and who we are. For sixteen year old high school student, Sloane Kendrick, however, it is little more than an unimportant afterthought. She’s not one of those girls after all, like Breanne and the Bathroom Brigade, who spend hours agonizing over their appearance and tormenting those who don’t look absolutely picture perfect. No, with her cargo pants and shit-kicker boots, Sloane’s personal style could be summed up in only one way: no muss, no fuss. Until the discovery of a single, quarter-sized bald spot above her right ear threatens to challenge everything Sloane once thought she knew about herself and her relationship with her body, her family, and perhaps most importantly of all, her identity. If only that was all she had to worry about. When one of Sloane’s film class projects is posted on Youtube and becomes a viral sensation overnight, attracting over six hundred thousand views worldwide, she catches the attention of the renowned production company, Clear Eye Productions, and is offered the opportunity to compete for a place in their prestigious scholarship program. Suddenly, her lifelong dream of becoming a filmmaker is within reach. Sure, Sloane is still reeling after her ex-boyfriend, Matt’s, shocking infidelity and their resulting breakup, but what better way to mend her broken heart than by throwing herself into a new project? Soon enough Sloane is faced with the daunting, though not impossible, task of completing a second video submission for the program in only three weeks. The only problem? Her assigned cameraman and general helpmate is none other than the ‘Voice Man’ himself, the charismatic, irresponsible, unrepentant charmer, Isaac Alexander. Now, Sloane must race to complete her scholarship program submission, cope with the flirtatious attentions of her cameraman and confront her increasingly strained relationship with her step-mother, all while struggling to keep her newfound diagnosis a secret and determine who she truly is with, and without, hair.

“I’m determined to show Mom that I can handle this. I’m determined to live what I’ve always known: that I’m more than my looks. And I’m determined, at all costs, to keep this a secret.”

When you read as much and as often as I do, you begin to get a certain feeling. A sixth sense, if you will. Thankfully, unlike Haley Joel Osment, I don’t see dead people, which I can only imagine would be terribly confusing, not to mention mildly traumatic. No, instead I’ve developed a rather good knack for predicting which books will work best for me after reading only the synopsis. The Art Of Getting Stared At was one such story. When the premise and cover for this novel were first revealed by Razorbill Canada back in April 2014, I knew immediately that this was one book I did not want to miss. And, much to my relief, I was right (otherwise this ‘sixth sense’ hypothesis might seem a little silly, in retrospect). A quiet, introspective story about one girl’s changing relationship with her body and, more importantly, her identity, The Art Of Getting Stared At is the perfect choice for readers searching for an issue-driven novel that focuses first and foremost on character development and interpersonal relationships.

“You’ve never been a coward, Sloane. Don’t start now.”
She shoves the random collection of lashes and tubes and wigs into my hand. “Sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is ask for help.”

Sixteen year old Sloane Kendrick knows exactly what she wants. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom and spurning the practical advice of her mother and father, a doctor and a pilot respectively, Sloane has dreamt of only one thing since the age of twelve: Filmmaking. More specifically, she aspires to create inspirational, investigatory pieces that challenge and inform, that expose moral and ethical wrongs and educate the public about previously unknown offences. Which is why Sloane is all the more horrified when it’s an relative fluff piece, glorified ‘shoe porn’, that gains the attention of the very prestigious, and very serious, Clear Eye Productions. You see, Sloane prides herself on being a person of substance which, by her very limited definition, means a complete disregard for one’s physical appearance and a focus instead on intellectual pursuits. As a result of these beliefs, Sloane is not always the most easy character to like. Rigid, uncompromising and judgmental, Sloane’s narrow world view lead to a number of occasionally well-meaning, but entirely wrong-headed, assumptions about her peers. Some have criticized the blatant moral absolutism in this novel, particularly in relation to Sloane’s beliefs, but I don’t think her behaviour is outside the realm of realism. That sort of foolhardy, arrogant assuredness is not atypical of teenagers. (I shudder to think of some of the generalizations I myself made when I was Sloane’s age about things I believed I didn’t like or would never do). It’s also important to note that this is how Sloane behaves at the beginning of the novel, and if anything is therefore a testament to the significant transformation she undergoes over the course of the story. While there are admittedly moments when Sloane’s conclusions about the difference between appearance versus beauty could have been drawn with a little more subtlety, her development as a character is no less remarkable. The loss of her hair and her eventual diagnosis force Sloane to challenge notions of appearance, identity and self that she once accepted as irrefutable fact, and in the process, inspires the reader to do so as well.

“And somehow I felt I had to choose. Kim or Mom. Pretty or smart. I chose Mom. I chose smart. And I’ve stuck with it ever since.”

The secondary cast of characters are equally well-rendered and leave little to be desired. Lexi, Sloane’s closest friend, is a consummate hypochondriac and perpetually on the verge of some new, entirely imagined, malady. This adds some much-needed levity to an otherwise somber story (such as when Lexi’s doctor diagnoses her with anxiety, only to be met with a forceful assertion that there’s something wrong with her knee) and also creates an interesting dynamic between the two girls in that Lexi believes herself to be suffering from an endless series of disorders while Sloane feels unable to confide in her about the one illness she truly does have. While this initially creates some tension between the two friends, Lexi also acts as a wonderful sounding board and support system for Sloane when she truly needs it most, exemplifying the sort of positive female friendship I wish I could encounter more often in novels aimed at this age group. Isaac, Sloane’s assigned cameraman, is equally interesting. Introduced initially as little more than a charming playboy whose true intentions are anything but clear, Isaac’s development as a character is in keeping with the novel’s over-arching theme which warns of the dangers of evaluating anything purely at face value. Sexy, soulful and protecting his own secret or two, Sloane is quick to learn that there is much more to Isaac than initially meets the eye. Most impressive of all, however, is the author’s examination of Sloane’s relationship with her family, both biological and blended. When her mother’s philanthropic mission to the Sudan is extended to eight weeks instead of the usual two, Sloane is forced to move in with her father, her step-sister, Ella, and her step-mother, Kim, with whom she has a contentious relationship. Not unlike Leila Sales’ masterful examination of the dynamics of divorced and blended families in her 2013 novel, This Song Will Save Your Life, Langston skilfully focuses on Sloane’s ever-evolving relationship with her step-mother, Kim. Initially perceived by Sloane as a villain who is only interested in outward appearances, Kim becomes an unlikely ally when Sloane is no longer able to hide the effects of her diagnosis on her own and requires the professional skills and advice of a makeup artist instead. What follows is an honest, turbulent, realistic examination of the often tenuous relationship between children and step-parents that does not resort to cliché portrayals and moral absolutes, but rather two flawed individuals attempting to forge a relationship, often in the wake of unimaginable differences.

Give up. Keep going. Give up. I can’t believe I’d walk away from a possible scholarship because I’m losing my hair. Because I’m afraid of what people will think. I pull my gaze from the car wipers. My blurry, smudged reflection stares back.
I give my head a little shake. Wet tendrils of hair slap my cheeks. I don’t recognize myself anymore. Not physically. And not mentally either.”

Arguably most important of all is the author’s deft and thoughtful examination of the role between our bodies and our identity as a whole, our notions of self and how inextricably linked this can be to the face we project to the outside world. As Sloane’s condition worsens, she becomes so consumed with the loss of her hair and the changes in her appearance that she considers sacrificing things she has always held dear, like her interest in filmmaking. Paradoxically, this often occurs in tandem with a rational realization dangerous and absurd this new behaviour truly is. Sloane becomes so obsessed with her changing appearance that she compromises values and priorities that she once held dear, all in the name of preserving her secret and projecting a certain appearance to the outside world. As such The Art Of Getting Stared At would act as an important educational tool both in and out of the classroom, perfect for inspiring discussion about topics ranging from the differences between beauty versus appearance as well as notions of confidence, identity and sense of self. I would not hesitate to press this novel into the hands of young adults struggling with any, or all, of these issues.

“Big disasters can start small. It’s true. A little hole can sink a big ship. A lone cell can leas to cancer. One lost hair can start a catastrophe that changes your life forever.
And a single slip can reveal a truth you’d rather hide.
But just as laughter can hide pain, disaster can hide opportunities. Not everybody on the Titanic died. Not all diseases kill you.
And not every guy who flirts or every girl who wears makeup is shallow.”

A book needn’t possess the most buzzed-about author, the most beautiful cover, or the most creative premise in order to be worthy of notice. That isn’t to say that The Art Of Getting Stared At does not possess these things – the cover is certainly eye-catching and Langston’s examination of the autoimmune disorder, alopecia, unprecedented, to the best of my knowledge – but for whatever reason has gone relatively overlooked in the vast sea of September 2014 releases, a fact that is all the more lamentable given its great value. A compelling, engaging story with a cast of flawed, likeable characters in a novel that promises to both educate and entertain, The Art Of Getting Stared At is one novel that will keep you thinking long after you turn the final page and that can, and will, stand proudly amongst its peers.

Please Note: All quotations included in this review have been taken from an advance reader copy and therefore might be subject to change.

Overall Rating

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Why not listen to what some other bloggers had to say about it?

● Larissa @ YA Midnight Reads wrote “Overall I would recommend The Art Of Getting Stared At for those looking a tale of self discovery with loads of character development and strong parental relationships.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Christa @ More Than Just Magic wrote “At times it felt a little morally simplistic, and there were a few things that went unaddressed…but it would also make it great for classroom discussions.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Jenni @ Xpresso Reads wrote “Langston is clearly an author to watch and someone who knows how to handle difficult subjects with equal measures of honesty and heart.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!