I should know better than to read a Donna Jo Napoli ARC. I really should, and now I am kicking myself in the shin with my other foot for requesting it. What possessed me? Because now I am left to write a negative review for a book that sounded interesting but disappointed me as a reader—and I knew it would. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew. It goes back to Napoli’s 2006 novel, Bound. I must have read this book when I was nine or ten years old, and Xing Xing’s story only had me half-absorbed. I wasn’t engrossed, but it is a light book that I did enjoy. Fast-forward to a couple of years later, however, and I found myself disappointed upon revisiting the same book. Bound, I discovered, is a book that tells a simple yet unoriginal story that lacks in profoundness. It was no longer this fanciful Cinderella re-telling I had cooked up in my head, and I wished to never pick up another book by Donna Jo Napoli.
But is it fair to base the entirety of an author’s work on one book? A book from seven years ago, no less? It’s safe to assume that Napoli’s craft in storytelling has matured since—that is what I told myself. I’d seen a few bloggers talking excitedly about Napoli’s books, and their excitement did a bad thing: it infected me. I was eager to read Napoli’s books. Me. Little old me—with a sad habit of scrutinizing literature—felt excited, and I ignored that twinkling sensation that said, “Warning: Approach with caution.”
This was bad. But not as bad as the situation Sep finds herself in.
I’ve been telling myself vitiligo is just a lack of coloring, so no matter how far it goes, it can’t look that bad. But it does. I can’t understand how—but it does. It’s revolting. A little shiver hums inside me, elusive and eerie.
Normally, I would be ashamed of myself for thinking this way, for being such a shallow jerk. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t think this at all. Normally, I would have empathy. If it weren’t me, I could look and be kind, charitable. But it is me.
On the first day back to school, high schooler Giuseppina, or simply “Sep,” awakens to white lips. No amount of scrubbing, waiting, and hoping will make the whiteness go away, as Sep soon discovers that vitiligo is taking over. What she does learn, however, is the lengths she will go to hide it. Her condition is nothing a little lipstick and clothing can’t cover, until it begins mapping her skin is places she can’t conceal: the palm of her hand, her neck, her face… Shaken with fear and embarrassment, Sep feels desperate to make her skin’s white patches revert to normal—and angry that they won’t. In Sep’s eyes, vitiligo has won, for once it becomes too wide-spread to mask, it will have doomed to her a loveless, lonely life.
As the saying goes, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. It’s skin-deep. But isn’t it easier to believe this when addressing other people’s flaws and not your own? I’m like Sep: a person who can sympathize and empathize. I’m not a shallow jerk who stares at and makes fun of someone for the way she or he looks, and I certainly don’t think any less of that person. Yet, if I were in Sep’s shoes, I’d feel horrified, angry, terribly unlucky, and self-conscious, because my appearance matters to me. I relate to Sep in this way, yet worrying about her looks and trying to keep vitilgo hidden is the novel, and this is not the story I had hoped to read.
Skin is difficult for me to review, as I am torn between the story I had imagined versus the story Donna Jo Napoli has written. Not only does Sep waste too much time trying to cover up her condition, she spends it rushing to experience love and romance before it’s too late—before vitiligo conquers her body, because no one will want love her then. If she can’t love herself, who else will? The novel, overall, carries a noble message within its pages—that beauty and love go deeper than surface appearances—yet it’s a cliché sitting on top of a weak story. While Napoli’s message is an important one to learn, I don’t buy it. Not here, not for Sep.
I can’t just look to others to be kind to me. I can’t control that. I have to learn how to be kind to myself. To the animal that is me. To this body. This skin. This me.
The rational part of me knows that this is the job ahead.
It sounds so simple.
The world is a giant deception. Hardly anything is simple.
But for Sep, it does seem simple.
Through most of the novel, Sep focuses on covering up vitiligo with lipstick, cream, clothing, and lies, and within four chapters I am to believe that she reaches an overnight understanding of what it means to love oneself? Sep stops battling her skin and finds inner-peace in return. No doubt some people in this world, like Sep, quickly discover equanimity—however temporary—or a deeper-than-skin acceptance of who they are. I am not one of those people, and I know that feeling comfortable in my own body is easier said than felt. What I think of Skin doesn’t amount to very much, as the shallow storyline limits its own power and ability to move readers, but I am disappointed. I’m disappointed that it took over 300 pages for Sep to accept herself. I’m disappointed by how suddenly, and so simply, she overcomes this nightmare she fights against for months. I wish Sep came to this realization sooner in the story, as quarreling against the public perception of beauty—and still learning to accept oneself—beats a story about trying (and failing) to blend with the herd.
Thank you to NetGalley and Amazon Children’s Publishing for providing a free copy of Skin in exchange for my honest review.