A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson (Grand Central Publishing; 336 pages; $25.99).
Fifteen is not a lucky number in the Slocumb family. Fifteen is, in fact, the unluckiest of years for Slocumb females in Joshilyn Jackson’s A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, her fifth novel. A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty has now replaced Gods in Alabama as my favorite of Ms. Jackson’s novels. Ms. Jackson writes her newest saga with sass, hilarity, and a whole lotta love as she introduces us to three generations of women: Big, Liza, and Mosey.
“Every fifteen years,” Big reveals, “God flicks at us with one careless finger and we spin helplessly off into the darkness.” “There’s no natural explanation,” Big explains, for “the hold the number fifteen has” on her family. Big was fifteen when she gave birth to Liza. History often repeats itself. When Liza was fifteen, she gave birth to Mosey. When Ms. Jackson’s book begins, Mosey has just turned fifteen. Ye Gods!
For as long as Mosey can remember, Big and Liza have preached the perils of teenage pregnancy and motherhood to her. Although Mosey is not sexually active, she hoards pregnancy tests kits. This is hilarious considering she is a virgin. Mosey likes to see the minus sign come up and then she buries the strip in the backyard. A little odd? Yes, but the negatives are like her talismans.
The Slocumbs live in Mississippi, the home state of this reviewer. I applaud Ms. Jackson for tackling the subject of teenage pregnancy and presenting it in such an insightful manner. In 2009, Mississippi ranked first in the nation as the state with the highest rate of teenage pregnancies. The numbers are not likely to go down. Sadly, our society romanticizes teenage pregnancy and motherhood especially. Just look at MTV, for example, with its “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom.” Ms. Jackson shows us it is difficult to raise a child when you are still a child yourself.
A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty is about more than teenage pregnancy. Liza suffers a stroke, affecting her speech and motor skills. Big thinks installing a pool in the backyard will be good for her daughter. Aquatic physical therapy might be just what Liza needs to recuperate. The only obstacle is a willow tree which happens to be Liza’s special tree. After the tree is cut down, it becomes apparent that something was buried there. In an old locker, the Slocumbs find the skeleton of a dead baby. Whose baby is it? What happened? Was it a natural death?
Ms. Jackson’s novel has many plot twists and turns as Big, Liza, and Mosey undertake their own unique journeys in the book. Ms. Jackson alternates among the Slocumb women to tell her story. The narratives of Big and Mosey are told in the first person, and I identify more closely with them. Because of Liza’s stroke, her account is told in the third person. Although I find myself not connecting as easily with Liza, her account is authentic as the stroke has damaged her body and her mind. Ms. Jackson really shines as she writes for Big and Mosey. Each has a distinctive voice. For example, Big refers to You-Tube and Craigslist as “the You-Tube” and “the Craigslist.” Mosey, meanwhile, is a typical teen, wowing us with her quick text-speak. Both are equally engaging.
Other characters also stand out. I smile whenever I read about Mosey’s friends, Roger and Patti. Some of Jackson’s minor characters are typical of small towns in which there is little to do but gossip. Ms. Jackson uses the character of Coach Richardson to remind us of the ever-increasing prevalence of improper teacher-student relationships. She also shows how drug use, particularly meth, has become part and parcel of small-town life and what a detriment that drug abuse is for all of us.
Despite what dirty, long-buried secrets are uncovered in A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, Ms. Jackson knows that families must not be linked through blood ties alone. The Slocumb family teaches us that families can be made even if we’re not born into them. Love means more than blood.