ARC Review: A Face for Picasso by Ariel Henley | Teen Ink

ARC Review: A Face for Picasso by Ariel Henley

August 30, 2021
By WesleyHarkov PLATINUM, Saint Paul, Minnesota
WesleyHarkov PLATINUM, Saint Paul, Minnesota
21 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Favorite Quote:
"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." - W. Somerset Maugham

Unflinching and insightful, Ariel Henley’s A Face for Picasso weaves a memoir of beauty, identity, and pain unlike any I have read before. Born with Crouzon syndrome, a condition where the bones of the head fuse prematurely, Ariel and her twin sister grow up with a twofold burden: the ceaseless hostility of a society with strict and rigid beauty standards, and the never-ending stream of facial surgeries necessary just to keep them alive. Told in three segments, the memoir follows Ariel from her vague understanding of the impact of her condition in early childhood to a middle school experience marked by cruelty and trauma as well as resilience, and finally to later teenage years and college as she begins to take control of the influence it has over her life. With the theme of Picasso a unifying thread through it all, Henley explores the immense societal importance of striving toward unreachable female beauty standards and the very real consequences for those who fall so short as to be considered disfigured. The book also touches on eating disorders, PTSD, and anger issues.

Henley’s experiences are truly not ones that the majority of readers will understand before reading this book, and they are recalled with striking candor. The physical realities of the major surgeries Ariel and her sister had to undergo every few years – immense pain, long recoveries, reactions to medications – are laid bare in matter-of-fact detail, and she is equally open about the emotional pain and trauma this leads to over the years. Though the novel certainly deals with heavy themes, the reading experience is neither overdramatized nor depressing – though Ariel and her sister have to deal with hardships their peers simply never will, they still navigate the same triumphs and challenges of growing up.

Certainly, though, Henley’s is a life the genre of memoir is designed for. As she mentions in the introduction, there are very few – if any – stories about people with extreme facial differences by people with extreme facial differences, who have lived through and understand just how thoroughly it impacts one’s life. The pairing of Crouzon syndrome and western beauty standards for women ensures that there is no part of Ariel’s life unaffected by her appearance, and whether at school, in another country, or walking down the street, there is no reprieve from the difference in treatment.

A Face for Picasso also manages to adapt the messiness of life gracefully to the format of a novel. It can be difficult to make a memoir feel coherent and follow a satisfying pacing, but Ariel’s story is thoughtfully centered and organized by the recurring theme of Picasso, the ideas of beauty and ugliness in his works, and the way his life reflects social values around beauty and art. With this underlying thread, A Face for Picasso fits into a beginning, middle, and end without feeling forced.

Striking and honest, A Face for Picasso does what memoir is meant to do: provide a vivid glimpse into a life truly unlike the reader’s own and give voice to a narrative missing from the public eye. With astute analysis of the way beauty standards shape the most basic social values and a fascinating coming-of-age story, Ariel Henley’s memoir is not to be missed.

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