Cecelia Ahern’s first young adult novel tackles our obsession with image and appearance, which Ahern says has become too pervasive, writes Colette Sheridan
Best-selling author Cecelia Ahern wrote her latest book, Flawed, “in a fit of rage, anger, and a lot of passion”. The novel, whose screenplay is being written in Hollywood, has as its protagonist a 17-year-old girl, Celestine, who’s perfect in every way. Her mother is a top model who gets constant work done to her face. It’s all about appearances and playing the game.
Set in a dystopian future, where being perfect is the ultimate goal, society is ruled by the Guild. Those who lie, cheat, or steal must wear an armband emblazoned with the letter F in red and their skin is branded with the same letter. Celestine, who is ruled by logic, encounters a situation in which she makes an instinctive humane decision. She inadvertently breaks a rule and faces life-changing repercussions that see her going on trial. She risks imprisonment and being branded.
“The idea came to me very powerfully and I wrote the first draft in six weeks,” says Ahern. “It’s very much inspired by the fact that we live in a very judgmental society, one that is quick to point the finger at people that make mistakes or decisions that are deemed to be mistakes. I’m not talking about anything illegal.”
Image is important in the novel as it’s a tangible way of measuring degrees of perfection. “Celestine’s mother represents that. If she’s ever feeling down about herself, she’ll fix her appearance.
“She doesn’t trust people who don’t look 100% perfect. If someone has a crooked nose, she can’t understand why they won’t make themselves appear perfect. So many people are utterly concerned about their appearance. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best. But when women start judging others on how they look, that can be a problem.”
Ahern talks about where the pressure to look as perfect as possible comes from. “What people are really trying to make better is their own self-esteem. But you can fix that another way instead of injecting yourself with something cosmetic.”
As interested in fashion as the next woman, Ahern says there’s nothing wrong with people wanting to look well. “Fashion is interesting. However, I’m not someone who judges other people by how they look. I don’t care if I have a bad hair day. I bring my kids to school in whatever I throw on that morning. I’m realistic whereas some women never want anything to look out of place. I’m not obsessed with looks. I don’t look at people and wonder why a woman is carrying weight.”
The character of Celestine “is far more sophisticated than I was at her age. She and the people around are so aware of how they look and, of course, it’s not just within their own circle of friends. It’s online, with people on Instagram, setting up scenes of perfection. I’m on Instagram and Twitter but I like to show what’s behind the scenes. It could be me waiting backstage in a grotty bookstore. People only want to show the prettiness. Everything must look perfect. I want to shatter that and I think I’ve done that in this book.”
That’s not to say that Ahern is an old misery boots. “I don’t want to be at all miserable but I think there are other sides to things (other than perfection).”
Ahern has no qualms about running to the shop without make-up and hair done. “It might be different if I had ten photographers chasing me. That would be a different pressure. In Ireland, that doesn’t happen. I’m allowed to be me.”
But Ahern has issues with the language the media sometimes uses and the photographs that are taken, particularly in relation to women. Because Celestine’s trial attracts a lot of attention, she and her mother are subject to much coverage in the media. “The way women are written about in the media is disgusting to me and is always negative. You’ll read that a woman is ‘showing off her legs’. She’s not; she’s just wearing a pair of shorts. Or you’ll read that a woman ‘cuts a lonely figure’ whereas she’s just walking alone. I wanted to show in the book how unfair and wrong that language is. When a star is caught (on camera) without make-up, it’s no wonder young women want to appear perfect all the time. If a celebrity is showing a bit of cellulite on a beach, who doesn’t have that? It’s the most normal thing in the world.”
Ahern was particularly incensed over a report about actress Blake Lively at Cannes recently. “It said ‘she flaunted her growing baby on the red carpet’. I have never heard that description before. She was just wearing a dress and is pregnant. She wasn’t ‘flaunting’ anything. She was walking the red carpet and was in Cannes for her film.”
Ahern says people often comment to her that they don’t know what the characters in her books look like. “To me, it’s not important. What is important is how my characters feel. I’m always in their head. I never have big paragraphs about the colour of their eyes. It’s for the readers to figure out how they look.”
To celebrate the publication of Cecelia Ahern’s first young adult novel, Flawed, she will visit the children’s library at 10.30am and will visit the adult library at 2.30pm at the City Library on the Grand Parade on Wednesday, May 25
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