Author: Lauren Myracle
Genre: Teen/Young Adult
How I got it: personal purchase
Where to buy it: From your local indie bookstore; from Powells; from the Book Depository.
In a nutshell: Carly's just returned from a bohemian summer camp to her upper-class white Southern family, and a sister who's starting high school with a whole new set of assets, if you know what I mean. Returning home carries its own challenges for Carly, always the smart, responsible daughter; and returning to school is a whole different set of problems: changing friendships, a sister who's terrified of her new body and her new environment, and unexpected challenges to her new progressive belief system.
Throw in a surprise crush, some serious pining (from multiple characters), a swim coach on a power trip, and an adorable set of abandoned ducklings, and you have Lauren Myracle's brand of mayhem: Southern values with a helping of irony on top, and equal parts hilarity and tear-jerking as Carly and Anna learn to trust their new identities, and each other.
Do the characters make you want to rip your own face off? Nope! They're great. I especially liked younger sister Anna, and Carly's new best friend Vonzelle.
Does the plot make sense? Yep! It's a pretty simple, though layered, story of two girls coming of age and learning to understand themselves, each other, their embarrassing parents, and their own privileges and responsibilities as they move closer to adulthood.
Is the prose abysmal? No! Lauren Myracle's narrative invigorates this story through a smart, confident, self-aware heroine. But like all girls her age, she's still woefully unaware about the big stuff, and that comes through with hilarity and poignancy.
Does it end on a cliffhanger only designed to make you buy more books? Nope! This is a great, solid standalone book. Before I left Virginia I gave my copy to myrafur's oldest daughter, for her to read when she's a little older and trying to cope with her younger sister. :)
The Verdict: Taken by itself, I really enjoyed this book. It's got a fresh narrative voice, a really engaging dynamic between two headstrong and vibrant siblings, and an important take on things like privilege and race from a Southern teen trying to deal with and be aware of her own privilege and social responsibilities.
As a Southern who had a very similar experience of returning from summer camp w/a whole new value system and finding everything back home in total upheaval (to put it mildly), I related a lot to Carly in this book. As an only child with no siblings, I still related to, and greatly enjoyed, Carly and Anna's relationship. This book made me want a sister of my own for a second--that's quite an achievement, believe me!
I always relate to LM's experiences of the South, which are honest and unflinching but also loving. And the way LM writes parents interacting with their teenage kids is spot-on. Often when I was reading I was cringing in embarrassment and recognition (for both generations)! The cast of characters is well-handled, and although you can see early on who the sympathetic friends are and who will turn out to be total jerks, there's still a bit of subtlety involved as Carly comes to our own conclusions.
A subplot involving Anna's fear of heights and her swim coach's tyranny over her inability to perform a high-dive in public is the most compelling of the various threads of conflict that Myracle weaves together, but there are powerful, funny, memorable moments throughout the book, and I bawled my eyes out at the ending.
At the same time, I have to tell you, guys, I don't know what to make of what I've labeled LM's "weird girl dichotomy," wherein it feels like she wants to deconstruct the gender roles her heroines inhabit, but at the same time, she also wants to teach young girls how to inhabit them. It creates a very odd sense of imbalance for me.
(As I write this I am listening to Shina Riingo sing, "I don't know how to be a girl," because it sums up my life and especially my feelings with regard to this writer, this book, and this post.)
Quibbles (Mild spoilers below):
So here is my deep dark confession about Young Adult literature. I read it to figure out how to understand and parse and comprehend this weird world of Girldom, because I have never ever understood it, much less felt like I belonged in it or could *do* it. Writers like Laurie Halse Anderson, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle, Sonya Sones, etc. are enjoyable to me partly because they're cluing me into that world. Crazily enough, teenagers are no longer the aliens they were when I was an actual teenager. (My entire life: being lived backwards? Most likely.)
But there's this thing about Lauren Myracle's books. She wants to dissect and examine and deconstruct the privileged Southern attitudes that she (and I) both grew up with, but all too often, her narrative voice is so unironically speaking from within that privilege bubble that I'm thrown from the book. And I'm never sure whether that was intentionally done on the author's part, or whether it was totally unconscious. Her characters are so often speaking what are recognizably Lauren Myracle's thoughts and opinions that when the narrative is unthinkingly privileged, I don't know how I'm supposed to read it.
(Granted, her narrative characters are presented as flawed, and she does a fantastic job of showing you that the other characters recognize and react to those flaws, which is amazing--they're not just unconscious things the author isn't aware of. But because Myracle so deliberately flaws her characters, I notice all the other times when statements that throw me right out of the message she's writing about are passed over unchallenged.
- Example: a narrating character who's spent the whole book actively examining her own privilege calls Urban Outfitters 'the rich person's Salvation Army.' I honestly couldn't figure out whether she was being ironic or not. ;dfk.
- Example: Carly comes back from camp with unshaven legs. At first she's just like, what's the big deal? when her family and friends comment on it, but eventually she gives in and shaves her legs. I would have liked to see some acknowledgment that she was caving, but it was presented as something of a relief for her to be able to have smooth legs again.
- Example: Carly wears a dashiki as part of her new hippie image, and her main concern is that people will think she looks stupid. There's never any awareness on her part (or the part of any of the characters) that she's appropriating, which bothered me. Yes, I know, hippies wear dashikis. It still rubbed me the wrong way, especially because Carly is trying hard to become more socially responsible and aware of the implications of these kinds of things.
The second example listed above has a parallel with something that happens far more gradually in the book I'm going to review next, Bliss; in that book, Myracle's protagonist gradually takes on some of the judgmental aspects of the people around her after moving to the South and being surrounded by commonplace prejudice and ignorance. Here, again, I wasn't sure if the author was letting us decide for ourselves how true the protag was being to her beliefs, or whether this was an unacknowledged flaw.
But more of that in the next review. For now, I'll just say I really loved this book, warts and all, and obviously-- obviously! -- I wanted to go run out and adopt a basket full of baby ducks when I was done. <3
P.S. I love this cover! The cover of my edition was the hardback edition, which is also uber-cute, but I loooove the poolside image of the paperback cover a lot. It's so pretty, and far more true to the book itself.