Normally, I tend to shy away from novels like My Book of Life by Angel. Stories that feature a narrator who is the victim of abuse or exploitation are tough for me to read, partly because of how painful the subject matter can be and partly because, after a while, all of these books start to sound alike. So many YA stories about prostitution, drugs, and abuse seem to be concocted using the same recipe: two cups of melodramatic language and a heaping tablespoon of lost teens who find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the tracks with no idea how they got there.
Because of this, I was wary when I picked up My Book of Life By Angel. I was afraid it would be the same old tired tale, but I soon learned that was far from the case.
The brilliant thing about this particular novel is that the author is the master of the “show, don’t tell” approach. You understand that Angel’s life as a 16-year-old prostitute is horrific without her ever having to come out and say, “I wish I didn’t have to live like this,” or “Life on the street is hard.” In fact, all of Angel’s observations about her lifestyle are matter-of-fact. She mentions throwing up chunks of internal organs as casually as if she is remarking on the weather, and she dispassionately discusses the creepy fetishes of her “dates” without judgment. No language is wasted on rants about unhappiness or regrets. Angel’s life is what it is, and though she wishes it were different, she accepts that no amount of self-pity will do her any good.
Just because Angel is nonchalant about her lifestyle doesn’t mean she is jaded or hardened, though. If anything, the opposite is true. Despite her situation she retains hope, humanity, and even innocence. She has a tendency to find small beauties amidst an ugly reality and works on making herself a better person in small but important ways. The amazing thing about this is that it isn’t a conscious effort on her part, but rather an inherent part of who she is. Angel is a likable and utterly believable character, sweet yet strong, and her personality is what makes this novel such a treasure.
Another thing I really liked about My Book of Life By Angel is the theme of the power of words to change your life. Words are the only things Angel has that can’t be taken away from her, and throughout the course of the book she realizes that by using these words she can define who she is and who she wants to be. She can write her own story instead of allowing someone else to write it for her. Her discovery of this is a beautiful one, and it makes Leavitt’s novel stand out even more than it otherwise would.