Throwback Review: The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk
April 30, 2019
I never planned on reviewing this book, but after a student returned it as a DNF, and my content partner asked to borrow my copy, I started thinking about it again. I remember when I finished, I wondered how you would review a book with multiple narrators when you only liked some of them.
The Beauty That Remains is told in alternating chapters by three narrators, Autumn, Logan, and Shay. What they have in common initially is that they are each dealing with the aftermath of grief. Autumn has recently lost her best friend in a sudden accident. Logan has lost his ex-boyfriend under questionable circumstances. Shay has lost her sister to a long battle with cancer. As the story moves forward, you learn that they aren’t three unrelated narrators all struggling with loss, but three grieving narrators connected by an indie band whose star was on the rise until a fall out destroyed their momentum and ultimately the band.
Once you push aside the far reaching idea that three students at the same high school all connected by the same band each experience a tragedy in the span of a few months, you are swept away by the characters and how they connect. Truthfully, it’s more about how they reconnect and whether they were ever connected beyond the music. You want to see where Woodfolk’s story of grief leaves the reader, but it is not without flaws. Character flaws.
As I read, i couldn’t help but feel that Woodfolk used all of her talent crafting Shay and Logan, and there was nothing left for Autumn. Nothing to temper the annoying and distasteful aspects of her personality. She was just a collection of needy flaws. It felt attention seeking rather than genuine. She was like a poorly realized PSA titled “This is What Grief Looks Like” or grief as it was portrayed on the CW in the early 2000s. I never connected with her, and while the other characters felt like they were scrambling over loosely packed earth for a way forward, she spent her time alternating between thinking about touching her dead best friend’s brother and her dead best friend. It was an unappetizing and poorly executed seesaw between lust and grief.
Autumn read like a girl with a crush more than a girl grieving and it wasn’t a space where I could relate to her. I found myself skipping paragraphs of her sections then pages of her sections then just her entire sections. As I was skipping, I was hoping that nothing in her portions of the story would be necessary for me to understand Logan and Shay’s far more intriguing narration, but I also wasn’t willing to keep sighing and eye rolling my way through her words. It was either skip sections or stop reading the entire book. I decided to skip sections. Turns out, Autumn wasn’t necessary. In fact, she was totally unnecessary. Giving her a voice took valuable real estate away from the two compelling narratives, and the story felt complete without it. Can I say I read this book? Kind of. I did skip every Autumn chapter after 19, but I made a choice that would let me enjoy the book. I’m going to put this in the win column.
Autumn isn’t the novel’s only flaw. She is simply the only character misstep, but the story also suffers from plot predictability. Once you realize how the three protagonists are connected, you know where the story is going. I don’t mind that because this was my kind of book. A book where the characters react to problems, cause problems, ignore problems, reconcile their fears and motives—a truly character driven story. I’ll usually forgive predictability if the characters are interesting enough.
And a big bonus, this book gave me the idea to play a piece of music, ask my students to let it linger on their senses then ask them to tell me what it looks like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, and feels like. What mood it creates. Hello, sensory language exercise where I get to force my musical tastes upon my students. FYI: Fiona Apple’s “Slow Like Honey” pulled some amazing responses. Maybe I should be concerned about how many of them said the song smells like cigars and tastes like bourbon. A question for a different day because I happen to agree.