Making Faces // by Amy Harmon

//published 2013//

Stephanie read and reviewed this one ages ago, and it’s been on my TBR ever since.  I finally checked it out of the library in March, where it sat on my shelf until July… I really don’t understand my reading life sometimes haha  Anyway, this wasn’t exactly what I was anticipating, but I ended up somehow enjoying this novel about faith, loss, grief, friendship, beauty, and love.

Part of the problem with this book is that it doesn’t categorize super well.  It was shelved under Romance in my library (part of the reason that this ended up being not exactly what I was expecting), and I definitely wouldn’t consider it romance, although romance plays a part.  It starts when the characters are in high school – with some flashbacks to even younger than that – so in the beginning it has a strong YA flavor.  But a large part of the story takes place when the characters are in their early-to-mid-20’s, so sort of NA… except without all the explicit sex and weirdness that that category seems to consider an important part of its definition (because apparently all new adults do is have sex, I guess).  One of the main characters, Fern, is a Christian, and her dad is a pastor, so there is a bit of a religious flavor to the story, yet I wouldn’t consider it to be a Christian book, either.  In the end, I guess it’s just A Novel, with a combination of genres within its pages.

The basic story involves Fern, who is a bit of a nerdy loner in high school; her cousin, Bailey, who has muscular dystrophy; and Ambrose, a high school star and all-around popular, good-looking, hard-working, great kind of guy.  The beginning of the story takes place in high school, where Fern has a crush on Ambrose, who is the high school wrestling star – the best wrestler in the state, in a state where wrestling is The Sport.  A lot of this section is actually more about the friendship between Fern and Bailey – they are cousins, next-door neighbors, and the same age.  Fern has always been there for Bailey, whose disease is degenerative and will eventually kill him – usually sooner than later with this condition – and I absolutely loved the relationship between these two.  Fern is just so genuinely kind without being condescending.  She’s so matter-of-fact about the ways that Bailey needs assistance, without acting like he’s helpless.  Bailey himself was probably my favorite character.  Harmon managed to write him as someone who has wrestled with and come to grips with his condition, without making him feel like an unnatural saint.

Despite the fact that the book is theoretically about the eventual romance between Fern and Ambrose, in some ways Ambrose didn’t feel like the main character.  We don’t get in his head as much throughout the story and he’s a little more difficult to get to know.  However, I liked that even though he had so much going for him, we still see that he has uncertainties and insecurities just like everyone else.

The critical turning point in this story is the fact that 9/11 occurs during their senior year in high school.  I was a freshman in college in 2001, so very close in age to these characters, and that’s definitely part of why this story resonated with me.  Obviously, it was an event that impacted everyone, but I think that those of us who were in that 17-21 year range – basically, the age of enlistment – really felt 9/11 differently than a lot of other ages.  That’s played so well in this story without making it feel political or even pro or anti war.  Enlisting was just something that Ambrose felt like he needed to do, and I liked how he acknowledged that it was both for his country, but also for himself, as he wasn’t sure that college was the next step he wanted to make.  Ambrose convinces several of his closest high school buddies to enlist with him, and they all head overseas.

This is literally in the synopsis of the book, so I don’t feel like it’s a spoiler to say that only Ambrose comes back.  And wow, I was not expecting the emotions that came with that!  Even though the other guys are “secondary characters,” Harmon really portrayed them as individuals, with families and dreams that they’ll never come home to.  Ambrose barely survives the explosion that kills the other guys, and it leaves him horrifically scarred.  In high school, he was good-looking, had wrestling scholarships all lined up, and was extremely popular.  Now he’s returning home with half his face deformed, partially deaf, and weighted down with survivor’s guilt.  Determined to hide from everyone in his small town, he works the night shift at his dad’s bakery.

Of course, Fern (and Bailey) pull Ambrose out of his shell and help him to deal with his burdens.  There weren’t a lot of big surprises in this one (maybe that’s why it was shelved under romance haha), but the story was crafted in a way that had me really rooting for these friends, and wanting to see how things were going to work out.  And, not gonna lie, it actually did make me cry, which doesn’t usually happen when I’m reading books.

There were parts of this book where things dragged a bit, or where the jumps between flashbacks and current time weren’t done very well.  There’s another secondary character, Rita, whose story definitely felt like it was just there to add some drama.  Out of everyone in the book, her character felt the most clunky and unnatural, and in some ways the entire book could have been written without her.  The book is a little too long.  I think some of the earlier bits from high school could have been cut out without damaging the overall story.

Still, I was really engaged with this story when I was reading it.  I loved the characters and wanted the best for them.  I really, REALLY appreciated that Fern was a Christian and it was just an aspect of her character and part of who she was – yes, she does talk about her faith and God sometimes, but not in a way that felt unnatural or preachy.  Her dad, the pastor, doesn’t come into the story very much, but I was super appreciative that he was portrayed as an actual good guy instead of a evil bigot like Christians (especially preachers) usually are shown to be in fiction these days.

All in all, I recommend Making Faces, especially if you were in high school or college during 9/11.  This was a book that was more serious in tone than I usually prefer, and definitely did not feel like it should be shelved in the romance section, but was still an excellent story.