‘Belle of the Ball’ is a hope-filled book which presents challenging topics whilst simultaneously maintaining a light spirit, creating an interesting but easy read. The story follows the main character, Lydia, and her journey after being severely injured in a hit and run incident. Later, on a family holiday with her close friend, Hannah, she makes a key friendship with Nakato, a Ugandan refugee fleeing from her abusive past. Lydia and Hannah befriend brothers Mike and Dave who both work at the hotel, which starts to blossom into romance.
Wider issues are presented in this book, for example, the difficulties of Nakato going through female circumcision and the struggles of Lydia’s post-accident life are gently presented. Weeks Millard beautifully describes familial relationships, and her thoughtfulness of how the family interacts whilst going through the trauma, is balanced well with realistic expectations. Perhaps due to Weeks Millard’s past career as a nurse and midwife, the hospital scenes seem to play a central part in the storyline as this is where Lydia’s mother cries out to God for protection over her daughter as she goes through surgery, and is also the setting where Nakato and Lydia’s friendship develops. This seems fitting as hospitals are often places of intense emotion and gradual healing.
I admired how Lydia and Hannah’s friendship was able to overcome the difficulties of the consequences of Lydia’s accident and the subtle struggles of growing up as a teenager being shown throughout the book. The journey of the characters throughout the novel was humbling, particularly in the light of the fact that Lydia and Hannah were ‘typical’ teenage girls enjoying the privileged Western lifestyle. Yet, through the trauma they both experience, they mature both as individuals and in their friendship.
Leading on from the subtitle of this book, “Is justice, like beauty, ever more than skin deep?” I thought Weeks Millard interwove the father’s second job as a journalistic investigator into people smuggling very well into the wider idea of justice. For example, through having this risky “second” job, Lydia found these two ideas (beauty and justice). The theme of beauty was portrayed well as the reader can clearly follow the protagonist’s identity struggle, as she is exposed to death and people’s evil motives, after having been made ‘Belle of the Ball’.
The refugee crisis described in this book may open the reader’s mind as enables Nakato’s story to be a testament of what, for many, life is like. Despite their lives being poles apart, the personable friendship between Nakato and Lydia shows how we can all be joined together with the common sense of humanity and caring for one another. I felt the contribution of Nakato’s story was imperative to the story line, and many chapters were devoted to Nakato’s explanation of her past, enabling the readership to connect with her emotionally.
Nakato’s resilient yet gentle spirit, meant that she soon became a character that I was drawn to. I admired how she became a tangible identity, as she was the one character who openly displayed her true emotions, showing great humility and strength. I would however say that I found the portrayal of the twin brothers a touch unrealistic as both were presented as having no faults nor showing any weaknesses. I found the relationship between Dave and Lydia particularly idealised and superficial which unfortunately cast a shadow on the reliability of the authenticity of other characters too. As a fifteen-year-old, I found this ‘romance’ frustrating. However, perhaps Weeks Millard wanted to put more emphasis on the broader message of the book, rather than focussing on specific character developments. Additionally, Weeks Millard did describe some doubt and tension in Hannah and Mike’s relationship, and I found Lydia’s sweet advice “talks” amusing to read.
I would suggest this book is best aimed at pre-teens, as I felt that the older teenagers may find the character developments over-simplified, perhaps restricted by the length of the book. However, this allows space and time for the reader to come to terms with the difficult topics presented throughout the story. The style and general language used throughout was easy to follow and so perhaps not challenging enough for older readers. That said, after having finished the book, I was left with a great sense of hope, as not only had the challenges that the characters faced been resolved, but the wider issues touched upon were complemented with great encouragement and optimism for the future!