Riley Rose doesn’t want to be at Spirit Ranch Holiday Camp. Riley wants to be partying with her best friend Chloe at the beautiful Ben Sebatini’s house. She has a plan to get away from the jumpsuit-wearing counsellors, the feel-good mantras, do-gooder campers and the monotonous schedule of team-building exercises and outdoor activities. But is everything at the Spirit Ranch as it appears? What secrets are waiting for discovery in the abandoned Fraser house? And why doesn’t anyone want to talk about the accident that landed the mysterious Dylan in a wheelchair last year?
I really can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read Everything Beautiful, given how much I adored Girl Defective. It’s one of those gorgeous, underrated Aussie YA books which captured my heart from the very first page. It didn’t take me long to fall for almost every character and become completely absorbed Riley Rose’s story.
Riley is the kind of emotionally complex character I love to read about in YA. On the outside she’s loud, uncompromisingly confident, and willing to challenge anyone in authority, from the teens who’ve become top of the social food chain at Spirit Ranch to the counsellors running the show. But it’s all for show. The death of her mother is something Riley is still overcoming and, her bravado falters plenty of times. Riley is also overweight, but I was glad to see this wasn’t a book where weight was a central issue and diets or weight loss weren’t there as a ‘fix’ for emotional issues. Although she acts like she doesn’t care, Riley is such a kind person. I instantly felt a connection with her and honestly, was pretty sad to have to say goodbye when I finished Everything Beautiful.
Riley was a wonderful protagonist, but she was by no means the only standout character in this book. Dylan and Sarita were just wonderful. From someone who has no experience of disability, it seemed Howell did a great job of exploring the issues Dylan was facing, in particular the ways people change when a wheelchair is introduced and exploring his changing masculinity within that space. I loved watching the relationship blossom between Riley and both Dylan and Sarita, seeing the ways they all influenced one another.
I haven’t read many YA books which feature religion, let alone make it a main focus. Those I have read are generally about cults. Which really isn’t a fair representation of the role religion plays for some people. Howell does a brilliant job of discussing religion, looking at it without noticeable bias. While Riley is obviously not keen to be at the spiritual holiday camp, Howell doesn’t lecture readers. Instead she explores why religion is necessary comfort for some, while it’s confronting and confusing for others. Believing in religion doesn’t absolve you of being an arsehole, but doubting spirituality doesn’t leave you out in the dark. We need more discussions like this in YA if we want to accurately represent the myriad of beliefs and values of society.
Everything Beautiful joined my list of ‘favourite Aussie YA’ from the first chapter. Howell’s writing is vivid, absorbing, and totally heartfelt. It’s a masterclass in character and takes a hard look at some of the topics sadly neglected in YA. Riley is my kinda girl, and I’d read another book about her in a heartbeat.
P.S. I wrote this review months ago, after I read this book the first time and before I decided to analyse it for a university essay. Even picking it gave me some apprehension because sometimes getting into the nitty gritty detail of a book’s structure and representation can make you hate it, or at least dull its shine. I’m happy to report that wasn’t the case. I read this book a second time, taking detailed notes, and loved it more and more as I wrote my essay.
Sounds like: Rumour Has It || Adele