Audacious is a bold story about a girl struggling to understand herself, her place in the world and deal with the many problems in her life.
Sixteen year old Raphaelle's family moves to the wide open prairies when her father gets a new job as a professor of history at a university. Their new home is spacious, allowing Raphaelle and her younger sister Michaela to choose their own rooms. Life is supposed to be better, a fresh start for everyone.
Raphaelle is eager to move given that she has had a history of problems and acting out at all of her many previous schools. In an attempt to start over and remake herself, she changes her name to Ella and insists on attending the nearest public school, John Cretchly Collegiate rather than the Catholic one her parents want to send her and Michaela to. Michaela also decides to shorten her name to Kayli and will attend the Catholic Girls School.
Through a series of flashbacks told throughout the novel, we learn that Ella's family has had it's share of struggles; Ella's mother lost a baby, a little boy named Gabriel shortly after he was born. Her mother has never seemed to recover from this loss which left her unable to have more children. She was a stay at home mom, but found it difficult to cope and so went out to work at the local public library. But in their new town, there are no jobs at the library and she begins to lose weight. Ella begins to suspect that her mother's struggle with bulimia has returned yet again. While all of this has been going on, Ella's father is mostly uninvolved, his focus being on trying to build his career as a professor.
On her first day at school, no one talks to Ella. She decides that there will be no pranks, vengeful practical jokes - nothing inappropriate, no challenging anyone's beliefs or morals. Ella will be the good girl; she will avoid controversy and blend in. In contrast to Ella, is Kayli, popular and happy, the sister who brings home two new friends the first week of school.
Ms. Sagal, Ella's art teacher is impressed by her drawing of a mandala. Sam, a boy in Ella's class also draws a mandala. Their serious approach to art attracts the attention of two classmates, Eugenia whom Ella nicknames "Freckle Arms" and a second girl she calls "Puffy Blonde". Sam and Ella are drawn to one another but their passion for one another is coloured by the fact that their are strong cultural differences between them. Sam, as it turns out, is short for Samir and he is Muslim, the exact type of boyfriend Ella's family would not approve of. Sam tells Ella that he is serious about his faith, but that his family used to be more moderate until the 9-11 event.
Ms. Sagal tells Sam and Ella that she is in need of more pieces for the art exhibit. Ella who is struggling to cope with all the problems at home, reverts back to her bad behaviour and decides to do something controversial. The impetus for this comes from Sam whom Ella tricked into whispering into her ear resulting in him calling her "audacious". This gives Ella the idea for her art piece - nine pictures of women who go against convention. She will use the letters in the word, "audacious" to determine the subject of each picture. A will be Arab, u stands for unemployed, d for disabled and so forth. However, Ella has a shocking idea for the letter "c" - a crass, four letter slang to describe a part of the female body. Ms.Sagal approves of Ella's idea, without knowing about the subject matter for the letter "c".
Ms. Sagal's interest in Ella leads her to breakdown and confide in her teacher, telling her about the loss of Gabriel, her mother's bulimia and her father's refusal to acknowledge the problems within their family.
Ella begins her project, photographing various people for each of the letters in the word, "audacious", including Sam's older sister, Hala who represents "arab", Ms. Sagal's daughter, Marika who is disabled for the letter "d", and a homeless woman named the Phantom for the letter u which stands for ugly. For the letter "c", Ella takes a picture of her own body. Ella hangs all of her pictures but one up the day before the exhibition, returning early the next day to place the "c" picture in her artwork. Her idea is that although we use these different words to describe women, in reality these words are not who we are; in reality we are all very similar.
As it turns out, Ella is not the only student with a controversial piece of art. Samir's art is a statement for the creation of a Palestine homeland - controversial but not pornographic like Ella's work. While Ella's work is shocking, and Ms. Sagal seems to approve, the offending picture is removed from Ella's art, but the fallout is just beginning. One of the students takes a picture of the "c" picture and posts it to facebook. Considered child pornography, Ella is arrested and charged and Ms. Sagal is suspended. This happens all before Christmas but only leads to a crisis of epic proportions within Ella's family. Her mother, whose bulimia is now life-threatening ends up in hospital and Kayli, the only seemingly perfect person in the family is failing in school. This crisis provokes their father to notice that the family is deeply in trouble and to finally act.
Can Ella come to terms with who she is and with the realities of life? Can she and her family pull back from the abyss they find themselves teetering over and find a way to heal and help one another?
This novel in verse is well written, the prose sometimes rhyming and very well done. The subject matter is for more mature, older teens and touches on themes of bullying, forgiveness, acceptance, and identity- particularly Ella's journey of discovering and accepting who you are - although this journey is also mirrored by Samir, a Muslim who experiences conflict between the personal freedoms secular society offers and the duties his Muslim faith requires of him.
Facing a crisis in school, charges in court and a deteriorating relationship with Samir, as well as her art provoking a possible hate crime, Ella questions the suffering people experience in life and the existence of God. She also begins to comprehend the consequences of her actions not only for herself but also for others who were innocent. The reality of this doesn't sink in until she goes to visit Ms. Sagal who has been suspended over the art exhibit. Ella sees that she is a single mom who needs her job to be able to support her disabled daughter and that's when she begins to think about somebody besides herself. This is a significant step in her journey towards maturity.
The theme of identity is especially prominent in the novel and Prendergast employs the pink chiffon dress that Ella mentions at the beginning of the novel as its symbol. Raphaelle discovered this pink dress at thrift store and loved the long sleeves and high collar as well its bright colour. The dress becomes a symbol of Raphaelle's identity - her desire to not conform to please others and a symbol of her rebellion. Raphaelle wore this "floaty, hot pink vintage dress/To a black and white ball...", making her stand out in a see of black. The other girls in junior high lured her into a room underneath the stairs with a bottle of whisky and then locked her there, until her dad came with the police to rescue her. With the move and the fresh start, Ella decides to give the dress away, but Kayli rescues it, recognizing that it is an integral part of who Ella really is. When Ella is packing to run away with Samir to New York, she discovers the dress and decides to keep it, recognizing and accepting what her sister did months ago. As proof of this, Ella decides to wear this dress to the Phantom lady - Charlotte Connelly's funeral. Charlotte Connelly was a woman who lived life on her own terms - even if that meant being on the street. My one complaint about this novel was the poor cover given the significance of the pink dress in the novel. The cover artwork is acceptable but unappealing and doesn't really draw the reader to pick up the novel and read. Perhaps the paperback edition will remedy this.
Prendergast tackles many controversial topics in Audacious including the "Arab question", art vs. pornography, and the feminist notion of a woman's right to control her own body, as well as the nature of suffering and the existence of God. Despite all these weighty issues, the story doesn't feel bloated with too much substance because Raphaelle is a character who seems to be truly struggling to figure herself out. Her questions about the nature of God and suffering are especially pertinent because many people, not just teens struggle to understand this mystery and it is often a serious roadblock to faith.
Audacious is the first in a series of books, the second to be titled, "Capricious", which seems fitting given the ending of this novel. It is an installment that I look forward to as it's a sequel to a novel that's not a dystopia!
Audacious by Gabrielle Prendergast
Victoria, B.C.: Orca Book Publishers 2013