I’ve got a short shortlist.
September Girls is on it.
Where to start?
Much was made just after publication about the sexism of September Girls (do you need links? I found no professional reviews taking this side of the discussion, so I’d rather not). I don’t think anyone who’s looking at this closely is still singing this song, and in fact I did what I rarely do and read some other reviews of September Girls (I was lucky enough to get lead a fantastic discussion group at Book Fest @ Bank Street and this was on my list, so it was due diligence), and I think the one that reflected my reading of the alleged sexism best — and went even deeper than my initial thinking had led me — was the piece over at Book Smugglers.
So go read that, then come back.
So let’s put the allegations of sexism aside — but not the study of gender and sexuality — for the remainder of this review and focus on all of the ways this might deserve some bling this awards season.*
(For my money, I’d say silver, but ask again in a few days and I might have swung around again. Also, I don’t think I’m alone; this is one of a handful of five-star books this season, and there aren’t any six-star titles, so this is in a short stack of critical darlings in a tough year.)
We’ll start with the easy: voice and characterization. There are two obvious voices: Sam’s narrative and the intercut, italicized Girl narrative. But really there are four voices at play, and each of them is distinct. Sam in dialogue is sometimes strikingly different from Sam thinking — and sometimes he slides into dialogue mode in his thoughts as well. And the italicized narrative moves from Kristle to DeeDee, and with that shift comes subtle but significant changes in voice. So, four narrative voices.
Dialogue Sam is brash, a little obnoxious, inclined to talk a lot about sex (even if he doesn’t really know anything about anything), and projecting. Sam wants to be tough. He wants to be manly, he thinks, even if he is a little unclear on what that means (I’ll touch on the sexuality/gender aspects in depth in a minute, but really they are EVERYWHERE in this book, because hello, theme!). He curses a lot in this voice. I’m calling it his dialogue voice, but often the conversation he’s having isn’t with an actual person. For instance, this voice is always the one present when he talks about Sebastian, his buddy back home (who manages to be startlingly well drawn for someone we only meet secondhand, even if he is a bit of a device to get Sam narrating some thoughts) — because his thoughts about Sebastian, or Jeff, for that matter, are a kind of conversation with their ideas.
Thinking Sam is the guy who walks along the beach. He notices things. He lets his anger go and revels in sensory input. This is the Sam who notices the “heaviness in his dick” on p. 24 — not because it’s sexual but because he’s fascinated by the world. This version of Sam waxes almost poetic now and again — “Black sand, black water, black sky, all of it variegated in barely discernible bands, the beam of Jeff’s flashlight cutting through it as a bright and pointless wedge.” This Sam is the one who sees all the strangeness, who recognizes that there is a larger story at play, even as he totally doesn’t get anything that’s going one.
Madison does a great job with a single first-person voice that embodies duality. The shifting style of Sam’s voice reveals plenty about Sam, and highlights the ways he is not always a reliable narrator — not that he’s a classic unreliable narrator, but he’s blinded by his own sense of the world. He’s too limited to get it right, and not just because first person is always limited; his striving to be a certain model of guy keeps him from understanding things several times.
Then we’ve got Kristle and DeeDee, and this is almost a perfect inversion (mirroring? Mirrors, after all, are a recurring and important image here) of Sam’s voice. With Sam, we have one person with two voices. With Kristle and DeeDee, we have two people with one voice, or so they say; neither one really introduces herself in her passages, and they say, often, that they are all the same. Really the truth is more complicated, but the way that Kristle’s voice is trying to be the voice of all the Girls and it only disappears when one of the Girls becomes just a girl is a lovely embodiment of the voyage of self-discovery encoded in the struggle of all the Girls. And like the Girls themselves, the voices seem at first glance similar (an effect exaggerated by the fact that the design of the book sets them up as one voice) but on closer inspection they show distinct personalities.
There’s also a great sense of place and of the lazy, never-ending days of summer here. The tawdry, rundown house and bar, the sense that there are people everywhere but none of them matter, the ever-presence of the Girls — all very vivid, although it felt a little cool at times — literally cool; heat is mentioned but not made palpable. A little more North than South in terms of the beaches evoked, so call that a minor flaw.
Most of all, what this book has going for it is the ways in which it’s so damn deep — fitting, I suppose, for the topic. This is a nuanced, layered, complicated and not entirely resolved look at identity and especially identity in the context of a heavily gendered, heteronormative society. (There is a brief throwaway that some Girls fall for girls, so they aren’t totally heteronormative — I appreciate this on a personal and professional level but wonder if it’s entirely in keeping with the larger context of the Girls and the way they shape themselves?) Identity is formed by the pressures around you, by society and by other people. We see this with Sam, who grows into a better version of himself removed from his usual world — and double that for Jeff, who talks a seriously obnoxious game. We see this in the narrative of Sam’s mom, who could not find herself within the confines of her job and her family, which had shaped her a certain way she no longer felt fit her; she had to find a different society to break free, but then she came back because that shape wasn’t right either.
(Another flaw to note here — Sam’s mother’s journey is a great counterpoint/reflection of DeeDee’s, and I love Sam’s filter, which posits Facebook as a root cause — he’s so incapable of seeing her as anything but his mother, which is part of the problem after all. But the pierced nipples and sheer shirt when she comes back, the existence of Women’s Land and SCUM — this all feels a bit bigger than life and played for cheap laughs in a way that is at odds with the nuance displayed elsewhere.)
Most of all we see the struggle of identity and selfhood with the Girls, whose very names come from the world around them (Brenda, Kelly, and Donna are mentioned frequently although we never meet them, and it’s absolutely no surprise that 90210 is a show that gets called out here, presumably as the epitome of countless shows aimed at teens and exploiting adolescent insecurities). They are beautiful in a way that Kristle explicitly states is modeled after the desires of the male gaze; they need a man (and a virgin, to boot) to escape their curse and a mirror to know themselves.
But of course it’s not that simple, and in the end there are still questions. The Girls are actually very different from one another: angry, smart, questioning DeeDee; fun-in-the-sun Kristle; laconic Taffany tending bar; and kleptomaniac Nalgene whose intelligence is in doubt — if we didn’t know they all looked the same, if we only had Sam’s narrative on which to base our sense of them, would we as readers imagine them at all alike? They think they need to craft freedom and identity in certain ways, but maybe they don’t; when Kristle looks in the mirror, I think what she learns is that she was so much more, and so much more herself, than she ever gave herself credit for. It’s tragic, in a way; the long search for something she had all along, which shaped her brief existence in the world and possibly prevented her ability to own herself fully, was perhaps never entirely necessary.
And maybe that’s the heart of the exploration: we are ourselves. We have only ourselves, in the end, because we can only know ourselves. Recognizing ourselves is the key to happiness.
Really, I should end there, but one other shoutout is needed; the use of both the Disney and Hans Christian Andersen versions of the Little Mermaid tale are excellent, subtle, and seamless. Plus they are put into a dialogue with one another by both looming as an unspoken meta presence — no one in the text ever notes these tales, but the reader who has read both will have a deeper experience for the ways in which elements and references to each creep in.
Convinced yet? This one delivers the goods, people.
*Yada yada, caveat as follows: We are not members of the 2014 Michael L. Printz Committee, who determine the winner of YALSA’s Michael L. Printz Award, often referred to here as the RealPrintz or Printz. Our predictions, conversations, and speculation about potential RealPrintz contenders and winners reflect only our own best guesses and are not affiliated with YALSA or the RealPrintz committee. You probably figured that out on your own, but we like to make it clear!