A Little Change of Face
by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
(Red Dress Ink, $12.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-89525-9
***
At first glance, A Little Change of Face is nothing more than a very clever premise: the overdone makeover story turned on its head. Instead of an ugly duckling who becomes a swan and then sails into the sunset with the man she's always loved but who has only just noticed her, this is the tale of how a man-magnet works hard to become a frump so that she can find the man who loves the real her.

Best friend Pam claims Scarlett Jane Stein gets all the attention because of her considerable physical assets. Scarlett suspects this might be jealousy speaking, but she is also worried that men don't love "her." It's really her hair and her face and what she swears are standard-sized boobs (36C, in case you didn't know) they care for. The only way to find out is to do as Pam suggests: shed those external layers and see what happens.

The first third of the book drags on and on while Scarlett embarks on this path. She cuts her hair and trades in her contacts for glasses. She doesn't go so far as to have breast reduction surgery, but she does change her wardrobe to hide them. She gives up her condominium, changes her name to Lettie Shaw, resigns from her job at one library and doctors her transcripts so she is offered a much-lower ranking position at another one. But Pam is not satisfied and berates Scarlett for not subjecting herself full-heartedly to the ugly treatment. Herein lies one of several interesting twists to a novel that celebrates female friendship even as it forces us to reflect on its potentially troubling underside. Although few would go as far as Pam, which one of us hasn't harbored gut-wrenching jealousy when confronted with our friends' larger breasts/longer legs/prettier face?

Despite all this, Scarlett continues to get male attention. In fact, pretty soon she has two men after her, one who likes her and one who likes, well, her boobs. But that too turns out to be far too simple. As Scarlett discovers, the problem with wanting someone to love the "real you" is that you have to know who the "real you" is. Sometimes, you just don't know who that is. Worse, sometimes the "real you" is so tied into what people see that it's hard to separate what's inside from what's outside.

Here is where what is only an interesting premise becomes a philosophical question. What is the connection between truth and appearance, and to what extent are our bodies our selves, Scarlett asks as she ponders women's somewhat disturbing relationship with their looks. She doesn’t have a satisfying answer, but she does suggest it is much more complicated than she had expected. (Hey, this is Chick Lit. Neither the Greeks, nor the Poststructuralists could answer these questions; we can hardly expect more from a pink-covered book.)

Several subplots with similar themes complement Scarlett's journey from black-and-white into gray. The most engrossing is another makeover story involving a twelve-year-old's coming-into-girlhood. Sarah doesn't get the normal happy ending, but she does grow wiser as a result.

Story, philosophy and subplots are told in a distinctive and wry voice. Unfortunately, there is also a strong tendency to meander off subject and to pad the writing with less-than-entertaining incidents. For instance, Scarlett and a lawyer friend (who calls herself T.B. or Token Black) frequently joke around in an outlandish version of Black English. I suspect this is supposed to tie in with the theme of appearance and truth, but it is also supposed to be funny. Sorry, I didn't laugh. As a whole, however, A Little Change of Face did make me think. Where that might leave readers feeling more uneasy than deeply satisfied, it's not necessarily a bad thing.  

--Mary Benn


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