Book Review: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary

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Image from Carolrhoda Lab Books via readdisruptrepeat.

DISCLAIMER: I hesitated to write about this book because Ashley Hope Pérez has already written the perfect review, excerpted on the back cover: “I WANTED TO BURN DOWN THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD AND BUILD A NEW ONE WORTHY OF MACY. . . . UNFORGETTABLE.” But maybe you haven’t seen the book, let alone picked it up. In that case, allow me to introduce you to Nonieqa Ramos’s novel: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary.

Be sure to fasten your seatbelt, because the Dictionary is a helluva ride.

FOR: Teens and up

SUMMARY: As the Library of Congress says, “Fifteen-year-old Macy, officially labeled ‘disturbed’ by her school, records her impressions of her rough neighborhood and home life as she tries to rescue her brother from Child Protective Services, win back her overachieving best friend after a fight, and figure out whether to tell her incarcerated father about her mother’s cheating.”

Whoa, right? This book goes straight to the jugular. This is not a tidy, predictable story about a troubled teenager, `a la ABC Afterschool Special. This is a raw and unsettling journey.

As you’ve probably gathered, the Dictionary is a page turner, but not a beach read. This book tackles many serious issues and themes: loyalty, neglect, hunger, education, sexual assault, foster care, friendship, prostitution, poverty, ADHD, kindness, and drug use. Somehow, in the midst of such hefty subject matter, there is also a great deal of humor. Kudos, Ms. Ramos.

FIVE THINGS THAT MAKE THIS NOVEL EXTRAORDINARY:

  1. It is a dictionary. Given the title, that should have been obvious, but when I read the words, “See H for Helmet,” it took me a while to realize that I could actually thumb through the book to find an entry entitled “Helmet.” (Among the H’s, no less.) But the words are defined on Macy’s terms. Macy has clearly had enough of the definitions forced upon her, like “disturbed.” This is our chance to see her actions from her perspective. Why does she steal from the grocery store, but refuse to eat what’s in the fridge? Why does she torment her history teacher and deface school property? Why does she give her mother’s coat to a prostitute? Or punch a boy in the jaw?
  2. The Dictionary is a diary as well. Macy (last name MYOFB) writes in it whenever she has time—e.g., outside the Principal’s office, waiting to be reprimanded, or in Homework Club with the supremely wonderful Miss Black. Macy’s opening entry is “ALWAYS/NEVER,” a linguistic combination that her history teacher considers grammatically flawed. Macy proves otherwise in the most poignant of ways. Have tissues handy.
  3. The chaos of the protagonist’s external and internal life is reflected in the structure of the book, which is arranged neither chronologically nor, technically, alphabetically. Mostly the entries are lumped like DVDs at the library: A-W-A-Y before AFRAID, MONSTERS before MAYBE, but then BURY comes after FIRELIGHT. Go figure. What is revealed—and when—depends on what Macy is moved to share at any given moment, so I recommend reading a hard copy to facilitate flipping back and forth between cross-references and entries.
  4. Nothing is cut and dried. The book raises a lot of questions and doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. Is her brother better off in foster care? Why does Macy’s friend George wear a helmet? Even Macy doesn’t seem to know. That’s OK with me; I don’t need everything explained in essay form. As Macy explains, LIFE IS NEVER LIKE THAT anyway.
  5. Macy frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly—and with a great deal of irreverence and profanity. She calls the reader out for a myriad of grievances: for reading over her shoulder, for being surprised she has heard of Odysseus, for not knowing a thing about Agüeybaná. To give you a taste of her confrontational yet humorous style, here is the entry filed under “DEAR READER:”

You are the person that I’m going to hunt down and assassinate when I find out you took my dictionary. I will hit your head so hard against the sink you won’t remember anything I wrote. . .Yes, the sink. That way I can wash your blood off my hands so I don’t ruin my sweatshirt.

Luckily she didn’t catch me reading it.

You may be wondering, is this a perfect book? Close, but the answer is no. There were passages that I had to read and reread, a few bits and pieces that didn’t ring true. Since the narrator is openly struggling and unreliable, let’s assume that was intentional. In any event, it doesn’t matter. Macy burst into three dimensions and haunted me long after I finished the book. I can still see her sleeping in the tub, swallowing paper, sneaking books from the recycling, saving two m&ms. She is all too real.

I HEART Macy. My recommendation? Buckle up and get to know her.

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