Seventeen year old Ava and fifteen year old Ted (Edwina) Trout are sisters. One Saturday as Ava and Ted are busking on Carnaby Street in the heart of London's West End, Ted is approached by Simon, a modelling agency scout. Simon shocks Ted by telling her that she is "amazing" and she should consider modelling. Ted is stunned because Ava is the looker, and she is only tall and skinny.
Ava and Ted dismiss Simon as a scammer and think nothing more of it. Meanwhile, in the weeks following this incident, Ava is diagnosed with Stage 2B Hodgkins disease. When Ted, Ava, and their parents attend a consultants meeting at the hospital regarding Ava's treatment, Ted finds an article about the agency, Model City, that Simon worked for, indicating that they are legitimate. Ted doesn't want to be a model and doesn't think she has "the look" but her sister Ava convinces her to at least check out the agency.
So one day after a trip to the hospital, Ava pushes Ted to go to Model City where she learns that their interest in her is legit. Model City is run by Cassandra Spoke. During her initial visit to Model City, Ted meets Cassandra's son, Nick, whom she dubs, "Nightmare Boy". After a photo shoot, Ted is signed on with the agency and is sent to go-sees where she attempts to get "optioned" for modelling work. During this time, Ted meets Nick several times, and her opinion of him changes drastically. Although he seems cynical and disinterested, Ted learns that he is a gifted photographer who has been jilted by one of his mother's beautiful models. Ted's first stint into the modelling business doesn't really work out and she decides to give it up and focus on the beginning of school and on her sister getting well.
During this time Ava begins her grueling regimen of six chemo treatments for lymphoma. As Ava's chemo treatment progresses, she begins to experience the expected side effects of nausea and fatigue. When she begins to lose her hair, Ted takes Ava to the salon that did her makeover for the modelling agency and they get their heads shaved. As Ava's treatment has not been entirely successful she is now scheduled for a round of radiation treatment.
Nick has inspired Ted to try her hand at photography and when she tells him that modelling didn't work out, he seems very supportive of her decision to get out of modelling. However, Ted's life takes an abrupt turnabout when the eccentric, hyper Tina di Gabbia "discovers" her on the street one day. Tina has the ability to make things happen for Ted whom she claims she will make into the next supermodel. After a brief photography session with Tina, Ted lands a shoot for a perfume ad that will jump start her career. Ted must travel to Manhattan for the shoot. But when she discovers what is expected of her, Ted comes to realize that things are not as they appear and she learns about what she truly values in life.
The Look is a thoughtful novel that asks the reader to consider some rather important questions about friendship and about what really matters in life. Although the world of modelling is explored, and there is some discussion of cancer, really The Look is about one girl's journey of self-discovery and about learning what really matters to her. Readers may find the pacing in the middle of the novel when Ted leaves modelling and nothing much is happening with Ava, to be a bit slow. However, their patience will be rewarded later on as the story lines converge.
At the beginning of the novel, Ted is rather insecure about who she is and how she looks. She's 5 feet 11 inches, which is tall for a girl and she is known as "Freaky Friday" by a boy she crushes on but has no chance of getting. For Ted, modelling becomes her chance to show her schoolmates that she is beautiful and accepted. But if she's seeking affirmation from the modelling world, Ted finds everything but that when she overhears a designer describing her as being "very nothing". Ted soon discovers that in the world of modelling where "the look" is everything, appearances can be very deceiving. Despite this, as she models, Ted begins to uncover a hidden strength she didn't know she had.
The juxtaposition of the world of cancer treatment with the world of high fashion in the end helps Ted discover what really matters in her life. Bennett effectively contrasts Ted's superficial world of gold tinted hair and spa-treated skin and hands, with Ava's world where hair falls out in clumps and hands and arms are bruised from IV lines. This contrast is very well demonstrated by the character, Nick Spoke, who falls for a incredibly beautiful model, Scheherazade, who treats Nick badly. Outward beauty is not always a sign of inner goodness. Bennett is careful not to demonize all the characters in the modelling world. Both Frankie and Cassandra help Ted and demonstrate that they truly care about her.
The author does a great job of developing the relationship between the two sisters, Ted and Ava, who aren't very close at the beginning of the novel. Ava is very beautiful and has a boyfriend whom she adores. She's always been the older sister giving advice to Ted. But her cancer diagnoses causes her to doubt that her boyfriend Jesse, will remain in the relationship. Now the tables are turned as Ava seeks comfort and support more and more from Ted. Ava reaches out to Ted more as the novel progresses, first sharing her clothing and make-up, and eventually her innermost feelings too. Bennett's novel is filled with some truly touching moments, such as when Ava and Ted get their heads shaved. So that the novel doesn't become too bogged down with its heavy subjects, Bennett writes with a touch of humour and manages to weave two lovely romantic threads into the storyline that end happily.
The characters in The Look are all very different and quite interesting, with the author doing an excellent job of developing each through the use of dialogue. From the brooding, cynical Nick Spoke, to the manipulative Tina di Gaggia, to Ted and Ava's mechanically inept, caring and patient father, Stephen Trout, all the characters are well drawn.
Bennett touches on a few other issues in the novel including, the notion that beauty is defined by tall thin girls and that a growing teen girl needs to watch every bite she eats for fear of becoming obese. Nothing is ever handled in a heavy manner, just presented in a way that makes the reader stop and think.
Readers wanting something fresh and different from the dystopian trilogies dominating YA fiction these days, will enjoy The Look.
The Look by Sophia Bennett
New York: Chicken House 2013