Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall begins when sixteen-year-old Tessa is hit in the head during gym. When she wakes up, she finds herself in what is apparently heaven, though it bears a strong resemblance to her local mall. It's logical for Tessa to find heaven in the mall, because her parents both work there, and the mall has formed the backdrop of her life. Of course there are some differences from how the mall looks on normal days. Through the intervention of a boy with a drill-bit in his head who co-inhabits this virtual mall Tessa relives various experiences from her life so far. What she finds is not always pleasant, but she gains considerable insight into her own behavior.
Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall is a quick read, written in verse. The chapter / poem titles are taken from the names of stores in the mall. The sterile, deserted mall setting is one that I think will entice teen readers. It's unique and familiar, yet thrown askew by Tessa's circumstances. Here's a passage that I flagged about the mall itself:
"The escalator is turned off so I climb up it,
which feels weird, like trying to climb up a frozen waterfall." (Page 2)
As in Sara Zarr's Sweethearts, which I reviewed recently, the main character gives out hints about a traumatic event that she experienced, only revealing late in the book what really happened. This, combined with the question of whether or not Tessa is really dead, lend tension to the story, and will keep readers turning the pages.
Two other things struck me about this book. The first is the author's ability to make Tessa a likable character, despite her undeniable character flaws. Tessa, at least before her accident, is almost completely bereft of a moral compass. She lies, cheats and steals, in mainly small incidents, and certainly doesn't display admirable behavior. And yet, because of the way we're seeing her acquire this knowledge of herself, retrospectively, we can empathize with her. The book jacket likens this story to A Christmas Carol, and I can see the parallel. When Tessa sees, with detachment, what she's done, she's ashamed of her behavior, and the reader can like this more self-aware Tessa. Here's an example:
"I glance once at the door,
then I lift the egg out of his bowl
and switch it with mine.
I have long ago accepted the fact
that I am the kind of person
who does things like this,
so in a very real way,
it doesn't even feel wrong." (Page 94)
How sad is that?
The other thing that I like about this book is the way the Wendy Mass is able to sprinkle in a few universal truths. I think that the verse format is especially suited to this. Here are two examples:
"In a way, this whole dying thing
takes a lot of the pressure off.
It's just too hard trying not to cross
all those fine lines that everyone is aware of,
even though they don't talk about them:
Be honest, but don't hurt anyone's feelings
be independent, but not a loner
be smart, but not a nerd
How the heck is a girl suppose to "be" anything?" (Page 15)
"It's all exactly like I imagined.
And that's the problem.
I feel like I'm going through the motions
of a girl going to the prom." (Page 225)
What teen hasn't sometimes felt like someone going through the motions?
Heaven Looks a Lot Like a Mall left me wanting to connect more with people, and be a better person. It also made me believe that people can improve themselves. That's quite a lot from such a quick, easy to read package. Recommended for reluctant middle school and high school readers, especially those going through any kind of self-assessment phase.
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: September 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Bookshelves of Doom, Becky's Book Reviews, Reader Views, Ms. Yingling Reads, From A to Z
Author Interviews: Bildungsroman
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.