A Handbook for Beautiful People

While rearranging a bookshelf last week I came across this book (by Jennifer Spruit) I forgot I had. I bought it because the central character has FASD. And I loved the title, thinking it was a handbook for beautiful people who had FASD. It was a book with a character who had FASD, but disappointingly the title was not a reference to people with FASD.

Publisher Description:
When twenty-two-year-old Marla finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, she wishes for a family but faces precariousness: an uncertain future with her talented, exacting boyfriend, Liam; constant danger from her roommate, Dani, a sometime prostitute and entrenched drug addict; and the unannounced but overwhelming needs of her younger brother, Gavin, whom she has brought home for the first time from deaf school. Forcing her hand is Marla’s fetal alcohol syndrome, which sets her apart but also carries her through. When Marla loses her job and breaks her arm in a car accident, Liam asks her to marry him. It’s what she’s been waiting for: a chance to leave Dani, but Dani doesn’t take no for an answer. Marla stays strong when her mother shows up drunk, creates her own terms when Dani publicly shames her, and then falls apart when Gavin attempts suicide. It rains, and then pours, and when the Bow River finally overflows, flooding Marla’s entire neighbourhood, she is ready to admit that she wants more for her child than she can possibly give right now. Marla’s courage to ask for help and keep her mind open transforms everyone around her, cementing her relationships and proving to those who had doubted her that having a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder does not make a person any less noble, wise or caring.

My thoughts:

As I said, I purchased this book specifically because it featured a character with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. When I saw it was written by a Canadian in 2017, yet refers to the main character having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, I thought it was going to be another outdated portrayal, as FAS is not a diagnostic term (since 2015) in Canada. I do understand her diagnosis would have been FAS prior to 2015, but I hoped that did not mean the author did not fully research and understand the complexity of FASD. I was wrong again, thankfully this time.

Would I have picked up this book if FASD wasn’t featured or if I knew nothing about it? Not sure. The main characters are an interesting and complex mix. Disabilities, trauma, addiction, mental health, prostitution, and growing up in the foster care system just to name a few. It was at times difficult to like these characters on the surface, but when you understand the reasons they are like they are, you have empathy. One reviewer called them a ”band of misfits, ” showing that some people still do not understand addictions, trauma, and disabilities. I have to admit though, that even knowing these things about the characters, parts of the book were still hard to read. 

Marla was a strong character. Overall FASD was portrayed with sensitivity. I was hoping more would be shared about it – but that comes from the place of being a parent to an individual with FASD and an advocate. I was hoping at some point there would at least be external support for these characters from an individual or agency that could help them navigate some of the rough parts of their lives. Not because they were not managing, but some of the struggles may have been avoided or impacts lessened. But for many with FASD, they don’t have support or understanding from outsiders. Marla’s foster parents play a minor role. Throughout the book, the characters supported each other even after struggling with aspects of their relationships because of their individual and complex challenges and personalities. 

I was relieved that Marla was a strong character. People with disabilities and FASD should be written about realistically. Every person is an individual and has unique strengths as well as challenges. While there was a lot of struggle and heartbreak in the story, there were moments of clarity and survival. I would like to think that these characters will exist in their book world and grow and evolve and find less struggle and more moments of joy.

If you are looking for a fictional book with FASD in it, I would recommend A Handbook for Beautiful People. I didn’t find FASD stigmatized at all. In fact, despite her past and current struggles, Marla was one of the characters I liked throughout the story. Be warned though, the story is raw – parts are difficult to read and events and descriptions could be triggering. The end is a heartbreaker. But it shows the strength of the character.

Let me know if you’ve read it and what you thought.

One thought on “A Handbook for Beautiful People

  1. Ab says:

    Thank you for sharing this review of the book. It is always nice to see FASD representation in literature and popular culture. There definitely needs to be more of it and ones that are multi dimensional rather than relying on tropes and stereotypes. This can only expand and grow in the years to come! 🙏