While I was scouring the pages of Atonement for quotes I had marked, I came across this - “beauty, she had discovered, occupied a narrow band. Ugliness, on the other hand, had infinite variation” (McEwan 7). I immediately associated this quote with the characters in April Genevieve Tucholke’s Wink Poppy Midnight. Despite the novel’s beautiful cover, it is the ugliness within the cover that I find fascinating.
After rating the novel in my Goodreads account, I glanced at a couple of the reviews. One reader vehemently hated Poppy, so much so that she "wanted to throw her out of the book with her bare hands...” I stopped reading after that. From the snippet I did read of this tirade, all I could think was: Poppy’s vileness is her appeal; it’s what makes her a fantastic character, and it is the reason I appreciate her. As I was turning this over in my head, I couldn’t help but compare her to Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. Poppy was “nothing but smooth elegance and cold, precise movements” (Tucholke 11), and she had “an evil in [her] too, a cruel streak” (Tucholke 13). Poppy and Amy are both physically beautiful but manipulative and morally corrupt. Both characters are loathsome, but the fact that the authors created characters that evoke such strong feelings of hatred from readers is awesome. And like Amy, Poppy owns her ugliness; she says, “everyone loved me and I loved myself and I got my way and did what I wanted and I still left people feeling like they were lucky to know me. No one thinks they’re shallow, ask every last person you know, they’ll deny it, but I’m living proof, I get away with murder because I’m pretty” (Tucholke 14). Poppy and the reader both know she is corrupt, and there is no issue of Poppy not realizing the wickedness of her behavior; she revels in it. She is very much aware that she can use her appearance to her advantage, and to pretend that society does not make exceptions for the beautiful would be counterproductive. In On Ugliness, Umberto Eco quotes Jean Lorrain, who wrote, “Ah, Botticelli’s mouths, those full lips, solid as fruits, ironic and sorrowful, with their sinuous, enigmatic folds that make it impossible to understand if they are concealing purity or abomination!” (354). Eco elaborates, “As far as women were concerned, some dwelled on their sphinx-like mystery (Wilde), others on their sinfulness, moral corruption or decaying flesh (Baudelaire)” (354). Poppy could easily be one of Botticelli’s models; she looks “like an angel, cherub lips and blushing cheeks and elegant bones and blond halo hair” (Tucholke 14). In Poppy’s case, her physicality does hide her ugliness, which manifests itself inwardly in her moral corruption. To her benefit, her angelic features disguise and make more palatable the demon within.
When Poppy disappears after being tied up in the Roman Luck house, she has settled into the Gold Apple Mine, and, at the end of the novel, when her parents come to bring her home, she tells them she “loved them but that living with them was no longer an option, catching fish and sleeping on the ground and being alone a lot was what [she’d] been built for, this was who [she] was, and doing the other things, being their little angel, it made [her] unhappy, and being unhappy made [her] mean” (233). It’s too easy - that Poppy could move out to the wilderness and miraculously become a better person, but I also think that moving away from the society that enables her would facilitate her in gaining a new perspective. I am unconvinced, due to her nature, that she could ever truly become benevolent. Perhaps had the Roman Luck incident not been a charade, I would think differently. Trauma could potentially alter her personality, but the reality is that the Roman Luck incident was a lie. However, the mercurial nature of humanity also leads me to believe that it is plausible for her to, at the least, improve herself. Leaf, who “laughed in [Poppy’s] face and told [her she] was ugly on the inside” when she was 14 and her one true love, finally joining her may steal away some of her meanness (Tucholke 14).
Poppy opposes poetic justice; she may not get a "happily ever after,” but she still ends up with the one person she wanted more than anyone - Leaf. Rather than despise Poppy for successfully avoiding karma and for her malicious behavior, I think it is much more productive to respect the honesty of her characterization. People can be and are ugly; our ugliness contributes to our humanity just as much as our benevolence. Eco states, “ugliness is relative to the times and to cultures, what was unacceptable yesterday may be acceptable tomorrow, and what is perceived as ugly may contribute, in a suitable context, to the beauty of the whole” (421). We no longer live in a literary age where a villain’s appearance reflects his or her nature, nor do villains always face punishment, and more importantly the villain may not actually be villainous - just human. In the end, Poppy was the easiest character to analyze in Wink Poppy Midnight; she knows who she is and so does the reader, and her character contributes to the overall beauty of the story by exposing the ugliness that can lurk behind pretty faces and that thrives within humanity.
Wink: Coming Soon...
Eco, Umberto, ed. On Ugliness. New York: Rizzoli, 2007. Print.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.
Tucholke, April Genevieve. Wink Poppy Midnight. New York: Dial Books, 2016.