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Mirrors and Manson: Another Morris Roundup

11-29-16There are some fun parallels between the two novels we’re discussing today. Both are debut novels from Ivy-league educated women with impressive resumes in other careers. Both books came out in June and have narrators who are teenage girls struggling to find their place in the world. They are also both strong contenders for the Morris Award. Compared to some of the current Someday favorites, these two probably won’t emerge as Printz contenders this year but there’s enough potential in each that we may see these authors in the conversation in years to come.

Mirror in the Sky, Aditi Khorana
Razorbill, June 2016
Reviewed from final copy; 1 star

Everyone’s had that late-night conversation about the alternate timeline version of your life. What if I had been kinder to the awkward boy in my class? What if I moved to California to go to college? What if I texted back to apologize? Fleeting questions that most adults contemplate for a moment (or in those hazy moments just before sleep sets in).

Would the scientific discovery of a twin earth grow these idle thoughts into obsessions? This is a central question in Aditi Khorana’s debut novel, Mirror in the Sky, which also addresses the delicate politics of high school friendships, race, and class. Tara Krishnan is the only Indian girl at an all-white Connecticut prep school when Terra Nova (yes, it’s called “new earth.” No, not that New Earth) is discovered. The news has a huge impact on Tara’s home life, but almost all of the main plot unfolds because Tara’s best friend leaves to study abroad for junior year. A horrible accident earns Tara the trust and friendship of the popular and powerful group of peers she’s always observed from afar.

The constantly shifting dynamics among these friends drive the plot, with Terra Nova feeling like an ornamental thought experiment happening in the background. That’s not necessarily a negative but it feels like there are two novel happening simultaneously. There’s the one that’s interested in how a teen girl deals with being in love with her new friend’s boyfriend in addition to being a minority at school both racially and socioeconomically. And then there’s the one about regret and a girl in crisis because her mother (and the world) focuses on what could have been rather than what’s happened. The duality of the novel could be a deliberate metaphor for the mirror image that Terra Nova creates with earth but the consequence is a story that doesn’t have anything pulling it all together. Tara is an intelligent character with a consistent voice but she alone can’t unify the plot. Despite these various thematic and narrative threads, the novel still manages to leave readers the space to contemplate those big “what if” questions.

There are a couple more things that work really well, and put this in Morris contention for me. The first is that Khorana’s characters felt alive, even when they were minor players in the action. This quality stands out in a climactic and epic argument in which seven characters all have individual motivations and grievances. The second thing is that although the concept of a twin earth is not necessarily new (e.g.: Mondasian cybermen, Brit Marling’s Another Earth) what Khorana does with it is striking in its logic and realism. 24-hour news reports on nothing else, cults emerge, adults have existential crises, and teens carry on with the earthbound issues that rule their day-to-day life.

American Girls, Alison Umminger
Flatiron Books, June 2016
Reviewed from ARC; 3 stars

Alison Umminger’s American Girls has a different set of strengths but the same problems as Mirror in the Sky. While it is similarly packed with a lot of ideas, the standouts in Umminger’s work are her voice and skilled evocation of Los Angeles as seen by an outsider.

The novel is narrated by Anna, a fifteen-year-old with (and I truly do not say this flippantly) a Holden Caulfield-like wit and worldview. She shares his disillusionment with a world in which she sees shallow, selfish personalities. Anna also feels protective of her younger brother and frustrated with her older sister Delia, an actress in LA with whom Anna is staying for the summer. Her voice has a deadpan sarcasm: “I already felt sorry for Dex. I liked him … He was probably raised by normal people and we were clearly raised by wolves” (68). But she isn’t a fast-talking, self-aware teen who doesn’t actually exist (except in the minds of adult writers who are creating aspirationally smart characters). Anna speaks with absolute honesty, and her humor comes from her vulnerability and candor.

Anna’s in LA for the summer because she ran away from home, stole her step-mother’s credit card and hopped a flight with no plans beyond wheels up. She’s allowed to stay with her sister for a few different reasons, but she’s mainly trying to earn back the money she stole. Delia’s odd, filmmaker ex-boyfriend hires Anna to be a “researcher” for his film about the Manson girls. He asks her to read about them and get into their mindset; to understand what drove otherwise unremarkable suburban girls to become vicious killers. Her reading as well as her observations of LA culture lead to ponderings on what it means to be a girl in America, what drives good people to do bad things, mother-daughter relationships, the objectification of women, and that moment in your teen years when infinite possibilities lay before you (making all decisions terrifying). Umminger lays out all of these ideas but a thesis never emerges. Ordinary girls looking for a place in the world can go astray, yes, but it’s unclear if Umminger is attempting to say something deeper or what that would be.

As I mentioned earlier though, the descriptions of LA are lovely. The characters we meet, mostly actors and filmmakers, range between despicable to understandable but it’s the landscape that gives the story life. “We drove for a while in the night, and I loved the way in Los Angeles, no matter how miserable you were, you could disappear into something beautiful. The ocean. The mountains” (259). If you haven’t personally had that experience, the description is still effective, even magical, because it captures the important idea that LA can be a rough place, but occasionally the rewards are surreal and wonderful. Seeing LA through Anna’s eyes reminded me of my first time in that city and the feeling like I was in a dream and nightmare at the same time.

Although it has stiff competition to make it into the final cut, I think American Girls has enough going on in terms of setting, voice, and characters to warrant a closer read for the Printz, and it should be a very strong Morris contender.

Then again, maybe you have a different take? Let us know in the comments!

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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. I really didn’t like American Girls. I like your review of it, however, and it makes me feel sad that I missed all the goodness in the book that you recognized.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Thanks, Anne. I can see why you didn’t like it though; there’s a lot of ugliness on display. I’m curious; what are the things that didn’t work for you?

      • My biggest beef was how little I actually learned about the Manson Girls. I kept trying to find a connection between the Manson girls and Anna. I’m sure it was there but it eluded me./ Anna was completely self-absorbed and vacuous. / I also have problems with books where the adults ditch their parental responsibilities. /There was nothing in the story line which spoke to me nor do I imagine it speaking to my students. I don’t even understand the title or the cover./ Guess you can tell I am not a fan.

        What I didn’t even think about as I was reading it was a beauty of the LA setting and its uniqueness. I was too caught up in disliking or feeling sorry for Anna.

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