Review–Skin by Donna Jo Napoli

by Donna Jo Napoli
Summary: Her lips are white. Sixteen-year-old Sep stares into the bathroom mirror on the first day of school. It's not some weird lipstick (she never wears lipstick), she didn't bump her lips or chew on ice. Her lips are just white. In a panic, she digs up an old lipstick and smears it on her colorless lips. But soon, more and more white spots begin to bloom, spreading their chalky tendrils across her olive brown skin. Does she have a disease? Is she turning into some kind of freak? Sep is usually the one who knows all the answers. With a quicksilver mind and a supple body, she's happiest when she's delving into the mysteries of animal biology or giving herself over to sweet, hot moves in Jazz Dance Club. Unlike her best friend, Devon, she's never been in a rush to get a boyfriend. But as the white blotches spread, her dating days, like the endangered species she studies, seem numbered. So when Josh, a boy she's always liked, makes a flirty advance, she wonders: why not grab pleasure while she can? Frank, funny, and full of passion, this compelling novel tells the empowering story of a strong, gifted teen who, as her life spins out of control, desperately tries to prove to the world, and herself, that she is deeper than skin.

Source: I received a digital copy from NetGalley.

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Skin was an interesting novel. I liked the premise and I couldn’t put the book down once I started. In some ways, I felt like Sep’s narration was childish and simple, but I also felt like it was so honest and revealing. Sep woke up one morning and her lips were white. Her normal skin color was tan, so the white was certainly noticeable. She tried to figure out what was going on, but more importantly, she tried to figure out how to hide it.

Let me start by saying that Sep’s problem resonated with me. A lot of reviews talk about how her issues were stupid, the bottom of the barrel problems, not to be compared to “real” diseases, and so on. Those comments outrage me. Skin disorders aren’t to be compared to terminal diseases because they aren’t the same at all, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t problems. Life with a disease that isn’t life threatening is completely different, but that isn’t to say that it doesn’t come with its own set of problems. I didn’t realize you had to be dying in order to have real problems. And Sep is 16. Of course she compared it to something terminal because when you are 16, your problems ARE the end of the world. Teenagers are at the center of their own worlds. But people who don’t grasp what having a skin disorder might be like don’t get it because they don’t have any visible problems. They must have forgotten about how shallow our society is. We know how we are supposed to act, but you guys all know that you stare at strangeness, even if it’s just a physical disorder or problem. Children have no tact and will likely say something. Having a skin problem is like wearing a giant flashing sign on yourself that screams abnormality and it really does take years to accept what you have and move on. If you don’t think skin problems are real problems, then you’ve likely never had someone stare at your strangeness and silently judge you in public and have no idea what that feels like, especially during adolescence, when accepting yourself is one of the hardest things you can do. When you are young, you just want to be normal. It isn’t really until you are an adult that you learn to think normal is overrated.

I have a skin disorder that started when I just a kid. It wasn’t the same as Sep’s, but it resulted in white spots, too. Once I became a teenager, I stopped getting new spots and the ones I had faded into scars. But I still have those scars and they will never go away. I’m fortunate that I have nothing on my face. It’s all concentrated on my legs and a few spots on my arms. It took me literally at least a decade to feel comfortable wearing shorts (as the worst spots are on my thighs). I still feel self conscious in public and I know my spots are not very noticeable. But I know they are there and that I’m not normal. And I still, even as adult, would think that it is the worst thing ever if I had them on my face. I totally understood what Sep was worried about and why she hid behind lipstick and hoped no more noticeable white spots appeared. She was worried about her future, how she would be seen, how bad it would get. The obsessive worrying is so normal for someone with a problem. Think about how often you get weird symptoms and obsessively Google them until you decide you must be dying. We do that.

So, in many ways, I loved Skin. It reminded me of my own obsessive thinking, when we had class field trips to the bay or the beach and I’d wear jeans and everyone would ask me why I was wearing pants when it was so hot. And if I wore shorts, they’d ask me what are all those spots, that’s so weird, what happened?… blah blah blah.. Sep worried about how she would cover her lips, if her lipstick was coming off, if anyone would notice.

Sep was a flawed character. She was selfish and her obsession with her appearance took her over and she wasn’t able to focus on her friends or family. She jumped into a relationship with Joshua immediately, mostly due to her worry that it would never happen again once her disease progressed. A lot of readers seemed to put off by the entire book because it didn’t really contain a good message. Sep was selfish, she was obsessed with her appearance, she jumped rapidly into a sexual relationship, and wasn’t a good friend. But I think I loved it because Sep was so… 16. We are all obsessed with ourselves at the age, trying to fit in, trying to decide what we are ready for. And the book did contain a good message because Sep realized her mistakes, accepted herself, and grew from her relationship with Joshua.

Sep was a mess, but I loved her story. I enjoyed Skin. As a book about problems, it didn’t really contain the best acceptance and solutions to them, as most readers probably expected. As a book about adolescence, it was more chaotic and real than wholesome. I don’t know who I’d recommend to read it because most adults probably thought Sep was unrealistic and selfish (because they forget that teens ARE selfish and do notice when people who NEVER wear makeup suddenly wear makeup!) and most adults probably won’t want their teens to read a book that is so flippant about sex, (although the characters did use protection). I am not the kind of reader who minds either of those things and I kind of love that the characters had sex and it wasn’t some cautionary tale. Sex is sometimes a part of growing up for many people and I don’t think all YA should be virginal about it or that every sexual encounter needs a lesson attached. Some people have sex and it doesn’t hurt or help them in the long run and that’s okay.

I wish I would have read Skin when I was 15 or 16 and refused to wear shorts. It might have helped.


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