Alternate Beauty
by Andrea Rains Waggener
(Bantam Trade, $14.00, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-38298-5
***
If we hate our bodies because they don't conform to the standards of this reality, will we feel any better if we move to another one, where fat is beautiful and thin is just plain sick? When big girl Ronnie Tremayne wakes up to find herself in a world where she has the coveted measures and shapes, this is one of the questions she must answer.

Ronnie wants to be a fashion designer. But at a size 28 she doesn't seem to have the body that will project the right image. Nor will it help sell clothes, as she discovers when she is fired from her job managing a plus-size boutique.

Imagine, then, how surprised she is when she wakes up the following morning in another reality where alternate beauty reigns. Now she has the body all the women long for. Now she is the woman all the men want to date. She is asked to create her own line of clothes. And when a sexy fashion photographer not only asks her to model her creations, but also to move in with him, it would seem that every wish she ever made has been granted.

Pretty soon, however, Ronnie realizes things are no more perfect here than they were in the other reality. Her boyfriend Jason is more interested in displaying her as a possession than in learning about her hopes, dreams and aspirations. Worse, "skinny" (or, in the alternate reality's politically correct parlance, "slender person") discrimination is rampant, something Ronnie discovers when she herself begins to lose weight. So when, once again, she is told she doesn't have the correct body to sell her beautiful designs, it would seem she is right back where she started in the other reality. Well, not quite. Because in the meantime, Ronnie has learned a precious lesson about what really matters. As a result, she can finally get her body into the size and shape that is perfect for her and not for some external standards.

Although I applaud the moral of Alternate Beauty and found myself carried along by Ronnie's matter-of-fact voice, it wasn't always the most satisfying read. First, in telling the story, Ronnie has a very annoying habit of identifying problems and then ignoring them for another fifty pages. Whereas this may be an attempt to highlight her slowly growing awareness, as foreshadowing it is far too obvious.

I also found that the movement between the two realities was not always the most logical. Most people exist in both universes, and most relationships and friendships pick up where they left off. This is not the case with Gilbert, Ronnie's sometime boyfriend in "our" reality. When she meets up with him in the other reality, he never seems to realize they were more than good friends. This difference helps drive home the fact that he is one of the few who loves Ronnie for herself. But it is also inconsistent with other aspects of the multiple-reality premise.

Finally, characters fall into two distinct categories. They are either genuinely good people who don't discriminate on the grounds of weight and girth, or not-so-good people who do. Take Ronnie, who as the main character grows the most. She may not always love herself, but even at her lowest, she is basically decent and certainly knows right from wrong. Thus, although she doesn't always actively fight slender person discrimination, she is profoundly disturbed by it. This is clearly not the case with the not-so-good people, including her hard-driving mother.

Such simplistic characterization is all the more untenable in a book that wants to convince women (and men?) to love themselves regardless of body size. What, then, about those who are, from the beginning, too set on their external image? How on earth can they learn to look elsewhere for self-respect and greater self-esteem?

Despite these shortcomings, Alternate Beauty uses an interesting premise to make an important statement in a well-written and entertaining fashion. No small achievement for any novel and even more so for a first one. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for Waggener's future (or should that be alternate?) ventures.

--Mary Benn


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