Each year at Mount Washington High School, a list is posted. It is anonymous. Eight girls are listed, two for each grade. One is the prettiest and one the ugliest. The List tells the story of all eight for the week following the posting of the list and leading up to homecoming.
Mount Washington feels like it could be any high school in America, which is basically the point. There are no geographic markers except that Lauren Finn and her mother have moved from the Pacific Northwest.
The whole thing is pretty obviously pointed, but I didn’t feel especially jolted out of the story by that, because it basically is the story. Vivian explores what being on the list means for each girl–and it’s not always what you’d expect. For one, the pressure of being named prettiest brings back an onslaught of anorexia. For another, being named ugliest is a call to defy the school’s standards of beauty. Vivian is essentially asking her readers what effect being called prettiest or ugliest has on girls.
Overall, the girls were nicely three-dimensional, with Jennifer and Sarah being the major exceptions. I think my favorite was Candace, who starts off coming across as a clueless mean girl and becomes something quite different. She’s the mirror image of Lauren, whose relentlessly nice image turns more complicated by the end. The sense of tension that builds as the mystery of who wrote the list and the question of what the consequences will be keeps the story going and keeps it from becoming a simple didactic.
However, as I finished the book, I realized that I felt extremely depressed and dismayed. There was almost no resolution for any of the characters and it’s pretty heavily implied that the list will keep on happening. It’s a worthy book in its way, but it’s not one I liked, if that makes sense. Obviously, on a certain level that’s not what Vivian is trying to do, and the lack of resolution does make the point that the school year will keep going and the girls will keep dealing with these issues. But the bottom like is that as a reader, I found it frustrating.