YA Book Review: American Girls
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The following review of American Girls (Flatiron Books, June 7, 2016) by Alison Umminger is from Food, Fitness & Fiction Contributing Editor Amber Lee.
Here’s a description of the book from Amazon:
Anna is a fifteen-year-old girl slouching toward adulthood, and she’s had it with her life at home. So Anna “borrows” her stepmom’s credit card and runs away to Los Angeles, where her half-sister takes her in. But LA isn’t quite the glamorous escape Anna had imagined.
As Anna spends her days on TV and movie sets, she engrosses herself in a project researching the murderous Manson girls―and although the violence in her own life isn’t the kind that leaves physical scars, she begins to notice the parallels between herself and the lost girls of LA, and of America, past and present.
In Anna’s singular voice, we glimpse not only a picture of life on the B-list in LA, but also a clear-eyed reflection on being young, vulnerable, lost, and female in America―in short, on the B-list of life. Alison Umminger writes about girls, sex, violence, and which people society deems worthy of caring about, which ones it doesn’t, in a way not often seen in YA fiction.
American Girls is a fresh, realistic take on fame-ridden Los Angeles; just under the skin of all the glitz and glamor and revealing the horror-tinged banality of attempted fame and life as a teenage girl.
In American Girls, there is a kind of realism you don’t often find in the usual Los Angeles story. Anna’s proud, beautiful actress older sister isn’t a Hollywood star but someone who struggles for a part in a herpes commercial and knows her beauty is her meal ticket. The legitimately rich, famous actor love interest Jeremy Taylor doesn’t play James Bond; he pretends to be a 12-year-old on a cheesy children’s show and has to deal with a hot mess of an older sister. Anna herself isn’t just adventurous and misunderstood; she’s also naïve and ungrateful. She’s confused about her relationships and where her life will lead, and does genuinely bad things that, at the time, seem reasonable—even to the reader. She reads like an authentic 15-year-old.
Anna’s new world revolves around fame, attention, and beauty. Her sarcastic voice brings levity to ridiculous hipster cafes, boring movie sets, and to long nights when she feels unsafe and alone in a foreign city. The romantic parts of the book are sweet but understated and unconventional—for example, Anna’s and Jeremy’s first date includes a cemetery drive and cleaning up Jeremy’s sister’s house. But they were unsubstantial. The real focus in such scenes was on the ideas of being afraid of ending up being someone awful, feeling left out, not having a place to call home, and wanting more from life.
I love the way the novel depicts violence and its many forms. I knew nothing about the Manson murders before reading this book and I learned a lot of interesting, morbid facts and stories the same time Anna did. I appreciate Anna’s self-reflection and the moments where she couldn’t see the difference between herself and the Manson girls when they were starting out. I wish there was more action when she proves that she’s going to be better than that. I liked how she apologized to Paige (the girl she bullied), but I wanted the catharsis in the important conversations with Anna’s parents and her best friend, too. The book really showed how complicated relationships are when people are horrible to you but are still trying their best. They love you and are generally decent people but they can still damage you.
I also really like how female-centric this exploration of violence was. Much more time is spent on the Manson girls than Manson himself. The social structures that brought Anna to just follow Doon in cyberbullying Paige relentlessly just for being pretty and popular are the same that make Delia, Anna’s older sister, closed off and secretive. They’re the same ones that drive Anna to steal a ride to California from Georgia just to see if anyone would miss her. The ones that made normal girls kill and do awful things when Charles Manson told them to. The sweet, transparent moments Anna has with Delia were the most emotional of the novel and I wish there were more of them.
Generally, the only thing that bothered me about the novel’s depictions of Los Angeles was the racial demographic. I live in a suburb of Los Angeles, and it’s always strange that people think the whole city is as white as Hollywood casts are. Dex is biracial and easily the most likeable character, but he is the single token nonwhite character. Where are the Black, Asian, Latino people all throughout Hollywood?
American Girls isn’t nearly as dark or gritty as I expected, but I think I prefer it that way. It’s utterly engrossing with a great premise and pretty prose, as well as relatable themes. Ultimately, the book is not about Los Angeles nightlife but about Anna and how teenagers, especially teenage girls, can get so caught up in ideas that turn us into people we don’t want to be.
For other reviews of American Girls, click on the following links:
Amber Lee, a high school senior from Irvine, California, is an editor for the Beckman Chronicle. She likes having too many hobbies at the same time to actually really improve at any of them: like reading, writing, art, useless historical research, drums, guitar, webcomic-ing, boxing, Muay Thai, and critical consumption of mass media. You can follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.
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