I can’t recall why I picked up Making Faces, but I do remember it generating a fair amount of buzz about 5 or 6 years ago, so I suspect I downloaded it out of curiosity. I found Harmon’s book to be something of a mixed bag. As with many self-published books I’ve read, this one would have benefited from tighter editing. However, the good parts of this book are truly very good and particularly in the second half, some of the more emotional scenes are incredibly moving. If you can get through the first few chapters, this is a rewarding reading experience.
Making Faces is essentially a New Adult novel, but it’s quite different from most others I’ve read. The characters in this book are not young professionals trying to make it in the city, nor are they college students. Fern Taylor, Ambrose Young, and the rest of the cast in this book all grow up in small-town Pennsylvania and we see them progress from high school graduation into the military and the job market. It’s a path still taken by many of the young adults in this country, but one that we don’t see portrayed in fiction nearly as often as college life.
Fern Taylor is shy and awkward – and in high school, she develops a huge crush on Ambrose Young. Ambrose is gorgeous and strong. Known as Hercules, he is the town wrestling star and it’s well-known that multiple colleges will court him for his athletic ability. In a nod to Cyrano de Bergerac, we see the lovestruck Fern writing love letters to Ambrose which ostensibly come from her beautiful but not-so-literary friend Rita.
Naturally, the truth comes out at some point. Ambrose feels like Fern and Rita made a fool of him, a state of affairs which wounds Fern to the core. Fern seeks Ambrose out and despite her shyness and awkwardness, she manages to tell him her side. The two kiss but the beginnings of their finding a way to one another is quickly interrupted.
Despite the attention from colleges, Ambrose feels a strong pull to enlist in the military. This book is set in the early 2000s, and the leads were all in school during 9/11, so that attack looms large for them. Ambrose goes off to Afghanistan, together with his inner circle of wrestling buddies. However, Ambrose is the only one who returns.
The last portion of the book focuses on the severely wounded Ambrose going to work in his father’s bakery and trying to rebuild his life. Now an adult, Fern works next door at the grocery and via messages on the whiteboard in a hallway connecting the two businesses, she starts to reach out to Ambrose. The connection that ensues is a bittersweet and beautiful second chance romance. Fern and Ambrose both grow as characters throughout this story, and it’s a tearjerker of a journey.
The author’s decision to keep the on-page heat low in this book really worked. So much of this story deals with yearning, both romantic and that “what might have beens” of the characters’ lives and past decisions. That yearning plays out vividly throughout the story and readers really feel the range of emotions that run through Fern and Ambrose as they start, tentatively at first, finding their way back to one another.
The secondary characters in this book really work well, too. For starters, Ambrose and Fern’s friends come from a variety of races and economic backgrounds, a diversity that I found much more reflective of modern small-town life than the almost uniformly middle-class white world I’ve seen in older novels. Ambrose’s wrestling coach stands out as a strong mentor, and we see the role that his wrestling buddies played in his life. We get to know Ambrose’s friends before they go off to war, and the news of their loss is therefore jolting to the reader just as it is gut-wrenching for the town.
And then there’s Bailey. He is Fern’s cousin and best friend. Bailey has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and by the time of the main action in the book, he needs the assistance of a wheelchair. I’ve read too many books where a character with a disability is either portrayed as unnaturally saintly or shows themselves to be nothing more than a passive character placed in the text solely to give readers opportunities to see the hero or heroine’s saintliness. Bailey’s a fun guy, but he’s no saint and much of the book focuses on his determination to live his life in a way that is anything but passive. Bailey loves his friends and family but he does it without being overly perfect. He is happy with much of his life but he also longs to experience things like wrestling, walking and running, being in a romantic relationship – and living a life without being conscious that he has a terminal condition. And it was precisely because of his multi-sided character that I ended up liking him as much as I did. By way of content warning, I will mention that there are some incidents involving various people in town treating Bailey abusively because of his condition and some readers may want to be aware of that.
So, why did I call this book a mixed bag? Well, for starters there are so many flashbacks. Rather than weaving past events more naturally into the text, the author here elects to use flashback after flashback to take readers into childhood memories and while a few could have been effective, the overuse often pulled me out of the story.
The early chapters were also something of a challenge for me. On the one hand, the characters in the story are still in high school and have a fair amount of growth ahead of them. However, that doesn’t stop their immaturity from being grating at times. In addition, while the guys on the wrestling team talk like most teenage boys I’ve been around, I didn’t necessarily relish all the trash-talking and borderline rude jokes about romantic relationships and women.
If you had asked me what I thought of Making Faces when I first started the book, I’m not sure what I would have said. However, by the end, I was glad that I read this novel. There are some richly emotional and hopeful moments in this story that lived on in my mind long after reading.