Release: March 8, 2011
It's hard to find beauty in the badlands of Washokey, Wyoming. Fourteen-year-old Grace Carpenter sure knows there's nothing beautiful about her mother's pageant obsessions, or about the cowboy dances adored by her small-town classmates. True beauty is wild-girl Mandarin Ramey: seventeen, shameless, and utterly carefree. Grace would give anything to be like Mandarin.I have no idea how to start this review.
When these girls, so utterly different from one another, are united for a school project, they embark on an unlikely, explosive friendship, packed with nights spent skinny-dipping in the canal, liberating the town's animal-head trophies, and searching for someplace magic. When Mandarin suggests they make a pact to run away, Grace goes along with the idea on a whim. Maybe it's the the wildwinds that plague their badlands town that make her say yes.
After a while, however, Grace has second thoughts. It turns out that Mandarin's unique beauty hides a girl who's troubled—even dangerous. And no matter how hard Grace fights to keep the friendship alive, even the strongest relationships can't withstand betrayal.
Kirsten Hubbard's bold novel will resonate with anyone who has ever yearned to escape—from home, from others, or from herself.
Like Mandarin is one of those beautiful, emotional, exhilarating books, the kind with characters so lifelike you want to have a conversation with them and a setting so vivid you swear you've been there. It's the kind of story so resonant and relatable that you overflow with emotions and know you will never run out of praise.
But when you go to review or discuss a book like this, a story as full of feeling as Like Mandarin, you never know where to begin. You cannot fully encapsulate your opinions in a handful of words, and you struggle to decide which aspect of the story you loved the most.
So, for this book, I will start with the obvious: the setting. Like the blurb states, it's hard to find beauty in Washokey, Wyoming, but in a strange way, Kirsten Hubbard gives her small-town setting beauty. Like Mandarin's backdrop is not gorgeous in a way that urges me to live there, but it is stunning in a literary sense. Hubbard describes Washokey so well—from the crazy-making winds that tear through the town to the empty, dull ache of small-town life—that the setting almost immediately becomes vivid and atmospheric. Washokey is not beautiful for its architecture or its beach views—although the scenes set outside in the badlands do seem stunning—but the little it does have to offer is described so meticulously that I could not help becoming captivated.
Thanks to this impeccable world-building, Hubbard is able to perfectly portray her protagonist's yearning to escape from her hometown. I absolutely love books set in small towns that always draw their residents back, no matter how sincerely they promise to leave, and Like Mandarin uses this trope more effectively than any book I have ever read. Aside from crafting Washokey so well, Hubbard also gives Grace a desire to leave that is 100 percent realistic. I found myself cheering for her on every page, knowing that with her determination, she could become one of the few to move away and not move back.
Equally as fascinating as the setting is Mandarin herself. She is a risk-taking, life-changing, trouble-making kind of girl, a kind of character that is not uncommon in YA fiction. But just like the "small town that draws its residents back" trope, Like Mandarin creates one of the the most complex versions of this character I have ever seen. Mandarin has so many realistic layers that combine to form an enigmatic yet lifelike character who will stick in my mind for a long time. Best of all, I loved viewing Mandarin from the point of view of a younger girl who wants to be friends with her, be like her, even be her. So often, we see characters like Mandarin through the eyes of a boy hopelessly in love, so Grace's infatuation with the idea of becoming a mirror of Mandarin seems new and refreshing.
With an atmospheric setting and two remarkable main characters—one who I related to and one who fascinated me—Like Mandarin is easily contending for a spot on my "best of 2015" list. Grace's story was my first Hubbard novel but absolutely not my last; I already ache to meet more of the author's characters and visit more of her settings. Read Like Mandarin in the spring or early summer when the world is bursting into life and begging for a vivacious, vibrant story as explosive as the change in season. Or read it when you are feeling an urge to escape your hometown. This dizzying, heartfelt, beautiful book will be exactly what you need.