Heaven Looks A Lot Like The Mall
by Wendy Mass
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Reading level: YA
Book type: verse novel
When 16-year-old Tessa suffers a shocking accident in gym class, she finds herself in heaven (or what she thinks is heaven), which happens to bear a striking resemblance to her hometown mall. In the tradition of It's a Wonderful Life and The Christmas Carol, Tessa starts reliving her life up until that moment. She sees some things she'd rather forget, learns some things about herself she'd rather not know, and ultimately must find the answer to one burning question--if only she knew what the question was.
Written in sharp, witty verse, Wendy Mass crafts an extraordinary tale of a spunky heroine who hasn't always made the right choices, but needs to discover what makes life worth living.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
I've been in a reading rut lately. I don't seem to have the energy to invest in long, heavy books that probably won't live up to my expectations and will instead leave me frustrated and angry at having wasted my time. I've had Heaven Looks A Lot Like the Mall on my want-to-read list for a while, and I figured I'd just get the Kindle edition and go for it. After all, it's a short novel (made even shorter by the fact that it's written in free verse), so I figured that even if I didn't like it, there'd be no harm done.
I wasn't really expecting to like this one as much as I did. It's not the most original of plots; the synopsis mentions similarities to It's A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol (which is actually referenced in the story). I was also reminded of Paige Harbison's Here Lies Bridget, a book that I really disliked because the main character seemed like a bit of a sociopath and I didn't buy it when she decided to change her ways. The main character in Heaven Looks A Lot Like the Mall is Tessa Reynolds, who is less of a stereotypical mean bitch and more of a complex, real teenager. Her "evil" deeds don't slap you in the face all at once, and even when she's talking about how her moral compass is broken, you realize that it's not that broken if she can see that there are things about herself that need improving.
The pace and story structure worked well. We're thrown into the action right away, with a dodgeball hitting Tessa in the head. Much of the rest of the story is told in flashbacks. Tessa's life is pretty unremarkable, but I think that's part of what makes the book work. You can relate to a girl who's not drop-dead gorgeous, who has issues with her parents and brother, who's neither rich nor poor, who's an average student, and who's made some mistakes either out of immaturity or stupidity. It was refreshing, especially in a world of YA fiction that's often populated by the gorgeous girl and her otherworldly problems.
That's not to say there wasn't some otherworldly stuff going on here. Tessa's near-death experience, in which she finds herself in a near-facsimile of her local mall, complete with a mysterious boy who guides her through the experience, is an interesting take on the trope. I thought the mall setting might be a little fluffy but, surprisingly, all the brand name dropping didn't really take anything away from the gravity of the story and its message.
If there was any weak part for me, it would probably be the ending. Some parts of it seemed a little too pat and corny, and I couldn't quite figure out why (or how) Tessa's mother would've dressed her in a pink sundress in her hospital bed (we already knew her mother was always trying to improve Tessa; this little incident was unnecessary). But Tessa was a character I could believe would take something away from the experience, so I can overlook the rather quick turnaround and an ending that felt a little rushed.
All in all, it was an enjoyable book, with deep messages about self-worth and honesty that were cloaked behind a seemingly fluffy plot device and setting. I'd definitely recommend this one.
Overall: 4.29 out of 5