Review: Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl - Joyce Carol Oates
“A hero can be fool, he's still a hero.”


Joyce Carol Oates seems to be a hit or miss with me. I admit I began reading her solely for being nominated for the Nobel prize, because I’ve heard close to nothing about her prior that. We began with Rape: A Love Story which will forever be one of my favorites. Then just a few weeks ago I read Beasts which, in comparison, turned out dreadfully weak. And now, we have Big mouth and Ugly Girl. Since Oates appears hit and miss, this was a definite hit; another favorite added to the list.

The story is about a joke gone wrong. When ”Big Mouth” Matt Donaghy, class joker, cracks an innocent joke about bombing the high school he quickly learns the consequences. Someone takes this joke very seriously and reports it, which leads to Matt being arrested. Suddenly rumors are spread between every mouth in town, some believing Matt could go through with what he said and others not quite so quick to assumptions. Either way, no one dares come to Matt’s rescue due to fear of becoming involved and accuses as well. All except ”Ugly Girl”. ”Ugly Girl” is Ursula Riggs, the school’s athletic misfit. She recognizes injustice when she sees it, and as one witness to what Matt said, she decides to speak up despite her parents wish to not become involved. 

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl is so much more than I expected it to be. It’s a young adult book, but tackles so many topics: the aftermath of a joke gone wrong, a friendship under unlikely circumstances, two families with different struggles, teens deciding what is worth fighting for. I find it strange how some novels can’t handle one topic with care when Oates manages to treat several of them beautifully within one book. The growth Matt and Ursula goes through – both together and separately – is astounding. How they come to terms with the hand dealt them both regarding the arrest and its aftermath as well as their home lives is done so well. I give all props to Oates for the presentation of these characters.

On the topic of characters then. They are what make this story. And as said, I give it to Oates to put them on paper. She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors due to her character development. They are authentic; I could easily recognize several of the characters in Big Mouth and Ugly Girl from real life. I’ll keep to the main characters though in this review. Matt and Ursula is consistent in the development, no rash changes or one-eighties. Their growth is subtle, slowly evolving into young people with great characters. They’re both likable even if they aren’t without flaws. Ursula has a way of not caring what other people think, and Matt can often say things before thinking them through. 

One thing leads to another after Matt’s joke, and after a traumatic event the two’s friendship really begin, even with people questioning it, even their own families. At the same time, even if the case against Matt is dropped, he’s treated differently. His old friends stop talk to him, teachers treat him with kid gloves, he starts doubting himself as well as others. Ursula as well doubts her choices, even if she often sticks to them. She also wants justice and wants to know who turned Matt in. Not just these things, they both go through hard times at home with their families. Together these two characters go through the hard times of growing up during the three months this novel stretches out over. 

In whole, Big Mouth and Ugly Girl is a wonderful story, and I’d say most teens should read this. Ursula and Matt is such great characters they keep you hooked through high school bullies, a building friendship, and hard decisions until the very end. The writing is spot on and its well paced with no dragging parts. This won’t be the last time I read this book, and I’m already looking forward to re-reading it one day.