We thought we’d have a conversation about Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. It’s been getting enthusiastic reviews (four of them starred), including a spoiler-free write up from the esteemed Liz B. And then we had a quick chat about it over the phone and we realized….we suspect that we totally agree, which may or may not make for an interesting blog post. Let’s see what we’ve got!
The plot: It’s about sisters Chloe and Ruby, who live in a small town in upstate New York. When Chloe finds the dead body of classmate London Hayes in the reservoir, she leaves her small town and her magnetic, larger-than-life sister to live with her absentee father. She returns to her town, and to Ruby, two years later to find things largely unchanged. Her mother is still the town drunk. Ruby is still Ruby, capricious and bold. But other things are very different—and only Chloe seems to notice.
Sarah: So…this book! With the beautiful words and rhythmic, repeating imagery! With its ghostly, haunting, haunted girls and slow, creeping plot! And, um, the pages. With words and chapters and all! Maybe we should start with what works for us.
Karyn: Something smart!
Sarah: You just said smart things that I totally agree with! I will probably to continue to agree with all your smart points. So even if the 2012 Printz winner is not a snoozefest, this post will be!
Karyn: More smart, with some extra chocolate sauce smartness!
Sarah: YOU ARE DELICIOUS.
Ok, but really — with a quick note: although we tried to avoid spoilers, we haven’t totally succeeded…
I (Sarah) love that this book is, in part, about how powerful stories are, how stories can eventually define us, and how telling them can change us. And I love the horror elements in the story. I so frequently associate “horror” with gore and slasher movies (confession: that I completely love), that it’s a great reminder that horror can also be delicate and subtle.
Ruby’s weird power is so fascinating and it twists her character up so much that I found her very believable (anyone with actual magical powers would seem strange and other, right?). She was fey-like and amoral, and I enjoyed wondering if she was quite human. Although I knew I was seeing her through Chloe’s eyes, I guess I fell under Ruby’s spell and never doubted that she was that strong, that beautiful, and that unflinching.
Karyn: For me, this was all about the language. I just thought it was gorgeous on a sentence level structure, and the poetic language (from page 11: “In reality I was a pencil drawing of a photocopy of a Polaroid of my sister”—so evocative and lovely scansion too!) created a dreamlike spell of creepy moody sensations. From a sensory perspective, this is an immensely rich book. And the lost town of Olive under the water and the recurrent attendant images: oh, shudders! The language made the setting feel immensely rich and just a little strange, while also believably upstate-ailing economy-small town claustrophobic.
Sarah: But maybe now we should talk about our Big Buts.
Karyn: Sadly, this was a case where the whole ended up less than the sum of the rather luscious parts. Now, it’s worth noting that I have only read this once, which I wouldn’t stop at as a committee member: the language is rich enough and the book unusual enough that I would give this one a second read if I were looking at it for the award for reals. But time is limited and we have a LOT of books to cover, so I’m going on the first read and a quick second skim.
In short, the magic realism was a little too magic. Or maybe the horror was a little too dreamy. The plot and the words felt mismatched, and my intellectual engagement was intense but my emotional engagement was slim to none. By the end I felt impatient and even a bit bored—all that intense buildup, thanks to language and imagery and the claustrophobic sensory overload is great, but the arc of the story never felt fully fleshed out.
Sarah: Yes, this is where we agree, at least in part. If I had time for another read, I’d be looking for clues about Chloe; I’d be paying extra attention to conversations she has with other people, and I’d be looking for what she gives away — not tells — about herself. Chloe is so deceptively simple and washed out that it’s easy to believe exactly what she tells us on the first read, to forget that she’s not necessarily to be trusted; on a second read, I’d need to notice what Nova Ren Suma shows us.
Karyn: So in the end, we’re putting this in the also-ran* category, but I will definitely be reading anything else Nova Ren Suma writes, because anyone who can use language so well is going places. I just don’t think she’s 100% there yet.
*Do, however, remember that an also-ran when we’re talking Printz speculation is still a darn good book and well worth a read.
Pub details: Dutton June 2011; reviewed from ARC