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Outside Beauty    by Cynthia Kadohata order for
Outside Beauty
by Cynthia Kadohata
Order:  USA  Can
Atheneum, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, CD
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Cynthia Kadohata, author of Weedflower (portraying a Japanese family interned during World War II) and Cracker! (about 'The Best Dog in Vietnam') now brings us another unique read in Outside Beauty - a book about the ties that bind even in the most precarious of family situations.

The story begins in 1983 and centers on a Japanese mother, Helen, and the four daughters she has had by four different fathers. Though Helen's gypsy lifestyle is based on exploiting her formidable beauty, she is a loving mother who cares for her daughters and assigns them clear family responsibilities. Marilyn, the eldest, takes care of Lakey, and together they take responsibility for 'money, mealtimes and motels.' The narrator and second eldest (almost thirteen), Shelby, is responsible for maps and navigation, as well as the care of the youngest, six-year-old troublemaker Maddie. Maddie watches the gas tanks. To Shelby and her sisters, peers in traditional nuclear families seem like they live in 'a parallel universe.' But Shelby tells us 'I loved my sisters more than I loved anyone ... They were not just sisters to me, they were extensions of myself.'

Of course, this nomadic lifestyle can't last forever, and problems quickly pile up. The disapproving Mr. Bronson, whom the girls call Mr. Know It All, has launched a custody battle for his daughter Maddie, that sends Helen and her daughters in flight to Lakey's dad in California. Then their Mom is in a car accident that requires a long series of treatments. She sends the girls to stay with their four fathers, the first time they have ever been separated. Though Shelby adjusts faster than she had expected to life in south Arkansas with her dad Jiro, she becomes very concerned about Maddie's situation and the brainwashing she's receiving from Mr. Bronson, who beats her for bedwetting. When a medical crisis temporarily reunites the sisters, the elder three decide on extreme (but very brave) action to rescue Maddie.

It's a challenge and an adventure, at the end of which all is resolved and Shelby concludes that her mother is attracted to lonely outsiders because she is one too and that: 'I loved my mother, adored her. But after a lifetime of wanting to be like her, I realized I didn't want to be her, exactly.' If you're looking for an unusual, quirky read centered on the bonds of sisterhood, you'll enjoy Outside Beauty.

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