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The Blonde of the Joke by Bennett Madison

The Blonde of the Joke

by Bennett Madison

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Val, a brunette, has always blended in, never stood out. That is until she meets Francie, a seemingly invincible blonde who takes Val under her wing and shows her that life is for the taking.

For a novel about shoplifting, it’s interesting that shoplifting really isn’t the point. Francie teaches Val how to steal, but in the end, it’s not about stealing the insignificant items that they do from the mall – it’s about finding that Holy Grail of theft – stealing an aura.

As Val blossoms (or some might say, self-destructs), Francie starts to fade. It’s a novel about the slipperiness of identity and about betrayal on so many levels. A lot of the details are vague. There’s something wrong with Francie’s mom, Val’s older brother is dying, and a teacher disappears without explanation. But it all fits the mood which is decidedly wistful and melancholic.

A complex, fascinating novel which doesn’t go where you think it will and doesn’t bother tying up loose ends. It definitely makes you think and would make for a great discussion. ( )
  lenoreva | Apr 12, 2010 |
This wasn't exactly realistic fiction, nor magical realism - actually, I just found it confusing. I enjoyed all the characters, I was interested in their lives, but by the end, I really had no idea what was happening. ( )
  francescadefreitas | Mar 3, 2010 |
No one has ever looked at Francie without doing a double-take. Everything about her is big – her hair, her make-up, her boobs. Francie’s the kind of girl who ends up wearing the “whore’s raincoat,” an ankle-length lime green coat that is doled out to cover up inappropriate clothing, on her first day at a new school. No one has ever looked at Val twice. Why would they? She’s practically invisible, her hair “brown like something you looked for and looked for and couldn’t find until your mom told you to check under your bed, and there it was, crumpled in a dusty corner where you couldn’t reach it” (pg. 4-5. All quote taken from ARC – language may change.) But Francie notices Val. She sees something in her, and soon Val is drawn into Francie’s orbit.There is a delicious hint of magical realism in Madison’s version of suburbia, but it’s not a pretty kind of magic. It’s slippery and sneaky, and a little bit dangerous. The book’s magic centers on two things: Francie and shoplifting. When Val is with Francie suddenly anything is possible, and the Montgomery Shoppingtowne Mall may just hold the most beautiful thing in the world. And the magic changes Val, as she pulls on her stolen motorcycle jacket and uses a heavy layer of eyeliner like armor.Bennet Madison’s character descriptions shine. He has the ability to sum a person up in one biting line. Not much time is spent on Val’s mother, but when she is described as “the kind of person who saw that there was a thunderstorm and went out without an umbrella anyway, because it seemed futile trying to stay dry so why bother” (pg. 75), the reader knows exactly what kind of person she is. And since she is the center of Val’s world, the descriptions of Francie are exquisite:"You should understand that she was not exactly a supermodel. I mean, she was beautiful, but she wasn’t. Yeah, she was tall and blond and booby with amazing legs, but there was something a little funny about her jawline – something square and sharp and almost masculine. Her shoulders were too broad; one eye was just the tiniest bit wonky; her nose had a slight hook; and if you looked closely you could see small blossoms of acne under the crust of her caked-on makeup. It didn’t matter. There was just something about her. If you thought too hard about it, she was almost ugly. But then you looked again, and your jaw would drop.She was a more perfect body pieced together from spares and defectives. From day to day, her appearance was never quite the same. No picture resembled the last. And sometime I wondered if she was replacing her own parts with things she had lifted, one by one. A rhinestone where her left eye should have been. A fist-sized crystal paperweight for a heart. It’s possible that she was a robot or a hologram. But aren’t those things real, too?" (pg. 66-67)And the descriptions aren’t just evocative – they’re something Madison uses to drive the plot. It’s through Val’s shifting descriptions of Francie that we start to see the chinks in her armor and to recognize Val’s growing independance from her friend.I’m always fascinated by a good writer’s ability to make something important by leaving it out. It’s a tough line to walk – how to bring up a subject just enough that the reader recognizes that it is important, but skirt around it so that it is clear that the narrator is avoiding the subject. Val refuses to so much as think about her older brother, Jesse, for much of the book – but she does it in a way that makes it very clear just how important Jesse is. I have seen several mentions of the language in this book. And while I don’t have a problem with the swearing, which I think is used effectively in the narrative, I did cringe at the casually homophobic language. Is it realistic to have a teenager call something they don’t like “gay”? Absolutely. And I certainly recognize that Val and Francie are supremely flawed characters. I think teen readers will recognize that, too. But I do wonder why the author thought it was necessary. (A side note: Am I feeling a little bit uncomfortable calling out an openly gay author about homophobic language? Yep. I really would like to hear his input on this.) Since reading this book I’ve been thinking about why I have such a strong reaction to homophobic language in YA literature. I think it comes down to this: when teens read about Val and Francie shoplifting, they recognize that what the girls are doing is wrong. When a character in a book uses racist language, just about every teen I know is going to recognize that the author is making a choice in using that language, and is going to recognize that the language is hateful and hurtful. From the conversations I hear every day, I don’t think that’s true with homophobic language. To keep my library a safe and comfortable space for all patrons, I regularly try to talk to my young library users when they use homophobic language. In my experience from these conversations, the understanding of why it is wrong just isn’t there yet with a large number of kids and teens. I hope that parents, teachers, and librarians will use this book as a starting point for having these important conversations. And I would love to hear everyone’s input on this issue. ( )
  twonickels | Jan 25, 2010 |
Val is one of those students at high school who just blends in. She doesn't have any particular friends, she skates by with a B+ average though she could do better; her physics teacher can't even remember her name.

Then Francie joins her class and everything changes. Francie is flamboyant, defiant, she smokes, she's always late to class, her clothing pushes the dress code: she's nowhere in Val's league. But for some reason, she latches onto Val, who is astonished and grateful, and willingly learns to smoke, cut class, and learn the skills of shoplifting from Francie.

Val is even a little bit in love with Francie, although "not in a lesbo way." Homophobia rears its ugly head in this book, with Val, and her brother's ex-girlfriend referring to him as a fag. Fourteen year old Francie sets out to "cure" him by dressing particularly provocatively, and then can't handle it when she gets attention from a group of construction workers.

Fissures start to edge into the friendship, and it all comes crumbling down one day at the mall as Val and Francie realize that their vows to be there for each other can't address the real issues each of them is facing.

An interesting story of a friendship built on lies and fantasies, flawed by homophobia. ( )
  nansilverrod | Nov 9, 2009 |
Reviewed by Breanna F. for TeensReadToo.com

Valentina has had friends throughout the years. But they all just seem to fade out and then she's left by herself again. She spends her time at the mall, hoping that one day something there will change her life. And what do you know, it actually happens.

While she's browsing the racks at the Wet Seal, Francie Knight taps on her shoulder. Francie is a very provocative girl in Val's class who has been seen around campus wearing the "raincoat."

Apparently, Francie is a major shoplifter, and soon Val is, too. All the girls ever do is hang out at the mall shoplifting basically whatever they can get their hands on in search of the "Holy Grail" - the one most amazing thing that they have ever seen in their life.

When Val isn't with Francie, she's worrying about her older brother, Jesse, who is mysteriously dying. Val has never really understood why he is, but apparently it's going to happen someday soon. She's also starting to mess around a bit (behind Francie's back) with the very attractive boy that the girls met at the mall one day.

Francie also deals with her own problems involving her basically psychotic mother, who randomly disappears, and when Francie finds her she'll end up staying with her grandmother for a week or so while her mom checks herself into the hospital.

Soon Val gets a little tired of Francie's ways and decides she needs to do something. But how drastic will that something be?

THE BLONDE OF THE JOKE is one of those books that's kind of hard to summarize, but I definitely loved it. Francie's character was so out there, and soon Val's character was, too. I also loved the ending of the story, which wasn't too abrupt or unfinished.

All in all, this is a pretty great book. I definitely want to read something else by Bennett Madison now! ( )
  GeniusJen | Oct 9, 2009 |
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A mousey brunette who goes unnoticed at her high school discovers that she has a sneaky, wild side when she teams up with a flashy blonde classmate to shoplift from upscale stores in the local mall.

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