1. What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold
This is not a story of sugar and spice and everything nice.
When Nina Faye was fourteen, her mother told her there was no such thing as unconditional love. Nina believed her. Now Nina is sixteen. And she’ll do anything for the boy she loves, just to prove she’s worthy of him. But when he breaks up with her, Nina is lost. What if she is not a girlfriend? What is she made of?
Broken-hearted, Nina tries to figure out what the conditions of love are. She’s been volunteering at a high-kill animal shelter where she realizes that for dogs waiting to be adopted, love comes only to those with youth, symmetry, and quietness. She also ruminates on the strange, dark time her mother took her to Italy to see statues of saints who endured unspeakable torture because of their unquestioning devotion to the divine. Is this what love is?
I am clearly in the minority on this book because it was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, but I did not like this book. In theory, this is exactly my kind of book: a book centered around an “unlikable” young woman’s experience with her body, her relationships, and what it means for her to be a girl in a world that doesn’t value her. However, this book just fell incredibly flat in so many ways for me.
First, I think, is the emphasis on the physicality of being a girl. Which. . . on one hand, it’s nice to see an older, darker YA mention sex and menstruation and abortion in this way. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that in this book, Nina has a medical abortion. On the other, the constant link between girlhood and physicality is so very limiting. I did like the focus on vulnerability, even for the girls that guard their heart closely; how on some level everyone feels entitled to you.
The relationship stuff was. . . better. It’s clear how the warped view of love Nina’s mother instilled in her affects her relationship with her boyfriend, and how Nina has to go on this journey to an understanding of love and relationships that is more her own. However, the conclusion of this arc happens so quickly and I didn’t quite buy how Nina seemed to suddenly just flip a switch in her thinking. In that regards, I wish this book had another fifty pages so I would buy it more. Again, clearly not the majority view here, but I found this book to be just okay. 2/5 stars.
2. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.
A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.
Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.
I read Her Body and Other Parties and What Girls Are Made Of several months apart, but I think it actually makes sense to review them in the same post because they deal with very similar themes, though Her Body and Other Parties worked for me in a way What Girls Are Made Of did not. This book is a collection of short stories all centered around the violence often placed upon women’s bodies, told through imaginings and various genres and some very, very weird (but often well-executed) premises. This book also does not shy away from the reality of bodies, but in a way that felt more inclusive and engaging. This collection is raw and real. It is definitely not for those who shy away easily, as it is explicit in both sexuality and violence, often combining the two to shine a spotlight on the violence often placed onto bodies. I can’t say that I enjoy this book from beginning to end, because there were a few let-downs. Especially Heinous, the reimaging of every episode of Law & Order: SVU seemed to drag on, and I finished Difficult at Parties without really feeling like that particular story had a purpose. On the whole, however, I thought this was a fantastic collection and I’m glad I read it. The stories I found most impactful were The Husband Stitch and Real Women Have Bodies (which I would call my “favorite”, though that word seems inadequate.) 4/5 stars.