December 18, 2006

To Forgive -- isn't Divine.

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

When I read the cover copy for Jacqueline Thomas' Simply Divine, I thought it was something like Alfre Woodard's 1998 Down in the Delta for the young adult set. Divine Matthews-Hardison is a brat, and her fast-talking, high-bling lifestyle of the rich and diva-esque set my teeth on edge, as did her shallow friends, name-dropping and whining personality. The lives of her mother, Kara Matthews and her actor father Jerome Hardison could be the lives of any A-list celebrities, and the predictable crash-and-burn of that highlife scenario which ends with Divine living in Georgia with her pastor-Uncle goes right along the Delta storyline... but there the comparisons mostly end.

Fortunately, Divine doesn't turn out to be a completely warm and cuddly character who always does right, nor is she a completely rude and out of control schemer out to wreak total havoc, either. Needy and desperate for approval, she lands somewhere in between, and her actions are more like those of a confused, hurt, and grieving little girl. Divine's time in the middle-class suburban home of her aunt and uncle is not the magic that somehow makes her entire family whole. That job is left to the Almighty.

There is a surprising amount of emotional realism in this novel. The character of Divine is by turns shallow and snotty, prideful and pitiful , as she weeps for her mother, and rages at how she hates her father, whose insistence on her calling him by his first name already hints at his reluctance to parent or associate himself with her too closely. The details of her parent's drug addiction, a surprising murder and her father's infidelity make Divine's isolation as poor-little-rich-girl possibly more poignant to adults than to the teen readers at which it is aimed.

The religious aspect of the story also got a little heavy, as the need for forgiveness and renewal through spirituality is spelled out almost phonetically. However despite the Christian tie-in, young readers will be relieved that Divine doesn't give up her taste for Gucci bags and the good life just because of becoming a Christian. Though the conversion story veers heavily towards telling instead of showing, the give-it-all-to-God cliché that so often attends this type of fiction is mercifully absent, as Divine still struggles in the day-to-day.

Fans of Jacqueline Thomas will enjoy her first book for young adults, and look forward to its sequel.

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