Stuck in her Danbury, Connecticut condo in self-imposed exile until she’s contagion-free, Scarlett Jane Stein keeps circling around to a passing comment her friend Pam made: how everything (read: men) comes to Scarlett just because she’s attractive.
Is it true? All her life she’s thought that she was fun to be around, that people liked her. Was it only because she was pretty (say it — because she’s got incredible breasts)? Or is Pam, tired of playing second fiddle, now playing her? All Scarlett knows is that she’s never found the man she believes is out there, her One True Love. So maybe Scarlett needs to change things up.
So it’s goodbye, Scarlett and hello, dowdier, schlumpier Lettie Shaw. And with her new look, new name, new home, and new job, is there a chance that Lettie-nee-Scarlett will find someone who loves her for who she is inside? Or has Scarlett’s little change of face turned into the biggest mistake of her life?
Wendy: The transformation from ugly duckling into swan is a common and recurrent theme in women’s fiction: loose a few pounds, tame and shape the eyebrows, get the perfect hair cut and color, procure a new—stylish—wardrobe, change from introvert to extrovert, and soon the once overlooked wallflower is the bell of the ball, loved by one and all. But, is she really? Is the newly emerged swan loved for the person underneath the coif and highlights? Or, is the display of beauty too dazzling to see beyond?
Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s A Little Change of Face takes the ugly duckling-into-swan theme and turns it around, unchicking a chicklit protagonist in order to find out if a woman’s worth is her beauty.
Scarlett Jane Stein is a heroine in search of love, happiness, and herself—though not strictly in that order. She has a condo that isn’t quiet a home, a job that she likes—even if no one else understands it—and a circle of girlfriends who don’t really fill the void left by her Best Girlfriend, who not-so-conveniently lives across the country. Scarlett has a number of things going for her, she’s smart, cheeky, very attractive and she has perfect breasts.
Scarlett’s default best friend, Pam, finds the scales of physical beauty tipped a bit too far in Scarlett’s favor and suggests that life comes much too easily (and undeservedly) for Scarlett because of Scarlett’s good looks. Pam’s undermining—and nothing short of frienemy observations—along with a case of the chicken pox lead Scarlett to make-under herself. She hacks off her beautiful crowning glory of long hair, takes out her contacts in favor of glasses, gives up her sexy clothes for empire waist dresses (read as: tents), and takes on the frumpy persona of “Lettie Shaw.”
It is perhaps difficult to accept that an attractive woman—a woman at a level of beauty other women aspire to—would willingly give up her Golden Ticket of life. But, then that is exactly why Scarlett does it: to discover if she has an unfair advantage; to get to the bottom of things. Scarlett is a humanly flawed protagonist, likable because the reader is allowed access to those flaws. She stumbles (by listening to Pam), she falters (by not listening to Best Girlfriend), and she makes questionable decisions (she cuts her own hair with cuticle scissors), all the while compelling the reader to stick with her.
As Lettie, Scarlett finds two men: Saul, who wants her for her external beauty, and Steve, who wants her for her internal beauty. The juxtaposition of Saul and Steve is perhaps where Baratz-Logsted’s storytelling sparkles the most as Saul, good looking and charming in an empty, meaningless way, is Scarlett at her shallowest. Whereas Steve, earnest and in search of the truth, is Scarlett at her stripped down best.
By the end of the book Pam is revealed as an enemy…and not a friendly one at that. This turn shouldn’t surprise any readers as Pam’s green eyes are obvious to all but Scarlett. However, after spending the length of the book rooting for Scarlett, begging her to see Pam’s truth, it’s disappointing and incomplete that Scarlett’s confrontation of Pam is something that plays out in Scarlett’s head but not in Scarlett’s life. As Scarlett says: It was enough to play the scene through in my mind. Well, no, it isn’t. As characters, Scarlett deserves the victory, Pam deserves the dressing down, and we, as readers, deserve an actual payoff.
A Little Change of Face true strength is its look at how women value and assign worth to themselves—Scarlett battles between wanting to be loved for herself and wanting to be desired for her beauty; how women value and assign worth to other women—Pam finds it impossible to find her appeal as long as Scarlett out shines her; and how men value and assign worth to women—Saul says he wants an intelligent and funny woman, when in fact he wants a hot chick.
The first third of the book is slowly paced, bordering on tedious as Baratz-Lodsted establishes Scarlett, the secondary characters and Scarlett’s crawl toward action begins. However, once the story finds its rhythm, it clips along as it should at a pace difficult to put down. A Little Change of Face is both a charming and thought provoking read.
HelenKay: Some romance novels have what we’ve come to think of as a stereotypical chick lit feel. A kind of flirty, sassy tone as a backdrop to a modern woman coming into her own as she struggles with everyday issues relating to friends, work and men. Some chick lit novels are heavy on romance so that the distinction between the two genres, to the extent you agree there is one, blurs. If you need to categorize what you read, to know in advance if a book is going to contain a certain the level of romance or non-romance, as the case may be, know that A Little Change Of Face is a book heavy on self-awareness and light on romance.
Scarlett, our heroine librarian is attractive, smart and seemingly put-together. People, both men and women, are attracted to her. She receives and ignores snide remarks about her chosen profession. She has an eclectic group of friends who, at times, forget the meaning of friendship, but Scarlett accepts and sees those limitations. She has an uneasy relationship with a mother who manages to feel real and not like a walking stereotype as in many books aimed at women. Bottom line: Scarlett’s life isn’t perfect but it works for her. Or so it seems.
Scarlett’s supposed friend, Pam, who Scarlett refers to as her default best friend, steps in and tips Scarlett’s unsteady but livable world into the direction of chaos. Thanks mostly to Pam’s insecurities and an untimely case of chicken pox, Scarlett’s common sense unravels. Scarlett lets Pam talk her into changing life – every part of her life, from her looks to her job to her house. Pam’s theory is that Scarlett needs to take away everything outwardly positive to see if people really like her for her. Pam’s reality is a searing case of jealousy that, at times, is so withering that Scarlett’s willingness to listen to her at all borders on incomprehensible. Enter Scarlett’s new life as frumpy Lettie.
The reader gets to experience everything Scarlett/Lettie feels and thinks as she walks away from the life she knows and tests a new one. She is the narrator and hers is the only point of view you have in this first-person telling. Baratz-Logsted kicks life into Scarlett/Lettie with an easy writing style full of humor and charm. Scarlett/Lettie’s thoughts and experiences – except for the wholesale destruction of her life at the whim of petty Pam – are believable and easy to relate to. The problem here is the speed at which the premise unfolds. That speed is slow. There is a significant amount of discussion about Scarlett’s make-under to Lettie but the change takes longer. When Lettie does hit the scene, Baratz-Logsted maintains her warm and funny style and attempts to breath life into a situation that sputters under the weight of Pam’s obvious jealousy.
The romance in the story enters around page 150. Two men enter Scarlett/ Lettie’s life. Both are flawed and stand for men we all know exist in the universe in which we all walk. Saul, the guy wrapped up in outward appearance and out for himself. Steve, a good guy who may fall a little harder and faster for Lettie than objective standards would believe since Scarlett has morphed into Lettie and does her best to shove him away.
Baratz-Logsted does not go for the easy romance tied up in a pretty bow. Having brought Scarlett/Lettie this far, and a bit too slowly, the author does not take an easy way out. She lets Scarlett/Lettie continue to wallow in her imperfections and mistakes when dealing with these two men and creates a satisfying, but not perfect, ending that fits the rest of the book. In the process, she gives Scarlett/Lettie a sense of perspective and peek into human nature that she didn’t even know she needed.
The pacing of this book is inconsistent and slow to start. The first third lacks a clear direction, but Baratz-Logsted’s strong and clear voice carries the reader past these problems. She is funny without being forced and real without being manipulative. She creates a flawed and imperfect heroine you can cheer for. One you can imagine knowing. One you can’t help but like, even in those moments when she doesn’t trust and like herself.
HelenKay’s response to Wendy: This book is light on romance, our usual preference here at Paperback Reader. The potential heroes aren’t even introduced until halfway through the book. Did the slight romance and telling in first person work for you?
Wendy’s response to HelenKay: I believe first person narration is incredibly difficult to pull off well. The opportunity to misstep is great because it’s easy to alienate the reader and it’s necessary for the reader to trust the narrator, to accept their version of truth in a story as the universal truth. In the first thirty or forty pages I really grappled with the POV. I liked Scarlett, I liked her perspective; then I felt inundated with her, I wanted a break from her. Then there were my reader expectations; since the majority of the fiction I read is third person, there were points where I expected a POV switch and didn’t get it. Eventually, I was able to get over what I expected and accepted what was there and enjoyed it greatly.
As you said, we both read a lot of romance, and I began A Little Change of Face expecting it to be a romance. Not that it, at any point, claims to be one. But, waiting for the hero, the first meet, the first kiss, is a conditioned response from me. That said, I let go of the romance expectation long before either male character (that’s right I didn’t say hero) showed up. The idea of men is a large part of Scarlett’s story but the actual men are rather tangential. Scarlett’s is a hero’s journey—not a romance—and yes it worked for me.
HelenKay’s grade: If you are looking for a typical romance with a strong alpha hero, this likely isn’t the book for you. If you’re looking for a change or want something with an emphasis other than on the romance, this witty and charming book is a good choice. I give it a B.
Wendy’s grade: Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s voice is inviting and witty even while the story struggles—early on—to find its footing. The characters are clearly drawn and sharp. They zig when you wish for them to zag, just like real people. B+