***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Gorgeous prose and intriguing magical realism, but a lack of depth in one of the key characters ultimately undermines the power of this novel.
Imaginary Girls is beautifully written
, even more so than 17 & Gone
, Suma's second YA novel. I love her use of language, and how she's able to evoke a dreamy, almost surreal feel while maintaining a contemporary voice. I love how seamless her dialogue is. And the setting of the town is highly authentic (somewhere along the Hudson River, near a reservoir that supplies New York City). But I had the same niggling feeling I had when I finished 17 & Gone
: I admired the work immensely, but it just
missed some sort of mark with me, both in terms of plot (what happens is intriguing, but is that enough?) and in terms of connecting with the material. In particular, I never felt terribly drawn in; I felt like I was being kept at arm's length, which seems to be a feature of how I feel while reading Suma's work.
This book is the author's "love letter" to her sister.
Suma has said publicly that she wrote it because the relationship she has with her sister has been one of the most important of her life, one of her deepest connections. That connection was brought home especially hard for her when her sister was diagnosed with a chronic illness:
"How can I even put to words how it felt to be so helpless, apart from my sister, knowing I couldn’t do a thing, realizing I had no true sense of what she was going through, and I didn’t know how to express to her how I would always be there for her, forever forward, until we were both old ladies, and how empty those words sounded? How much I loved her, how much I meant those words?
Oh, maybe you know. If you’ve read Imaginary Girls, it’s there. The way Ruby loves her little sister, Chloe? What Ruby does and would do for Chloe to keep her safe?"
--Nova Ren Suma
It's very odd to think of what Ruby does as "keeping Chloe safe." For me it only works if you think of Ruby as being severely damaged by her upbringing, and not understanding that her actions are actually destructive to Chloe, and if you think of Chloe's devotion to her older sister in turn as being a symptom of not knowing what it feels like to have a healthy home life (which was briefly offered to her by her father).
Who is Ruby really, as a person? I understand the affection Suma feels for her sister (I have a sister I adore) and I admire the goal to honor that affection in literature. But in fact, that closeness between sisters was precisely what was missing for me in Imaginary Girls. Although we're told the girls are inseparable, and they talk about their attachment, and we're privy to their history together in great detail (right down to Wednesdays are always movies and popcorn night), I could never feel their relationship because Ruby wasn't real to me. We have no sense of who Ruby is as a person, because, I would argue, even Chloe doesn't know. (Note that I'm not talking about the question of whether Ruby is truly magical or not, I'm talking about who she is inside). Ruby was almost two-dimensional in the way that secondary characters sometimes are in bad novels (which this novel was not), yet the close relationship between the sisters was supposed to be driving the story. I found myself wondering, based on Ruby's actions, how Chloe could care about her. What does Ruby do to keep Chloe safe? After first cavalierly risking Chloe's life, Ruby does something desperate and unfeeling and unkind: sacrificing another human for her, and then ultimately, sacrificing herself. Are these good things? Is it a healthy love? Is it supposed to be the monstrous form devotion might take when two sisters have led a horrible life? (If so, was their early home life depicted horribly enough for us to believe that?)
A story of abuse? In fact, I thought many times that the relationship was painted more as an obsession or even a possession than love. If it's a possession, then it doesn't matter who Ruby is--only her power over Chloe matters--which is consistent with how Ruby is depicted: as a dominant, unfathomable sibling. But I can't imagine Suma wanted to dedicate this book to her sister knowing that was the dynamic overriding the whole story, so I'm left to think she does imagine it as a story about devotion. This may be a case where the author's explanation of the origin of a story actually does it literary harm. If you didn't know that Suma meant it as a love letter, you might successfully argue that it's really a very moving and subtle story about abuse: about how damaged a person can become when they're dependent on someone who causes them harm or neglects them. Ruby is damaged by her mother's neglect, and in trying to care for and protect Chloe, she actually (dysfunctionally) becomes controlling and neglectful herself. Sometimes Ruby's abuse appears to be a mistake, as when she puts Chloe in danger in the reservoir and quickly thinks better of it, and sometimes it's deliberate, as when doesn't respond to Chloe's worried texts, makes her re-enter a flooding house, or exiles her from Jonah's home at her convenience. Chloe's life is full of neglect, beginning with abandonment by her dad and the severe neglect of her alcoholic, drug-abusing mom, and then moving seamlessly to the domination of her sister. Love letter? The outcome for Chloe at the end is pretty atrocious; the reader can't help but wish her dad had rescued her from her sister.
The novel does make you think, which is always good, and ultimately why I've shelved it in "favorites." I found myself mulling it over both while I was reading and after I had closed the book, and in that sense I believe it's a truly meaningful contribution. I did also wonder while I was reading whether I've just been steeped in YA too long, whether my skills at reading adult novels are rusty, and that maybe this is an adult novel.
What was the novel lacking? Again, perhaps because of my immersion in YA, I wanted to see some good ol' conflict and resolution (which is the stock-in-trade of most of YA). I kept wanting to see Chloe act on something, rather than have everything act on her. I wanted her to be less of a passive force in her own story, and I wanted to see character change. And even though there are moments where she seems to rebel against Ruby (going beyond the town limit with London in the car; putting her toe in the reservoir; going to the cemetery with her peers; sleeping with Owen) they're not structural rebellions. They seemed to be more of a way for us to experience the magical realism, to see the consequences of pushing the limits of Ruby's powers.
(And speaking of the scene where they cross the town line while she's having a cat-fight with London in the car, I thought that was one of those unfortunate visual mistakes you sometimes see in literature, [like when Gus and Hazel kiss in the Anne Frank house]. It seems to violate Suma's implicit rules of magical realism to have London physically disappear. In all the other cases of Ruby's "magic," you could stretch and find somewhat logical ways to explain them. When that vanishing in the car happened, I had a flash of the goofy scene in "It's a Wonderful Life"--the one where Bert the cop is wrestling Clarence the angel on the ground, and Clarence appeals to Joseph and disappears right out of Bert's hands, leaving Bert scrabbling thin air in confusion.)
What did I love? While I never felt that I knew Ruby, I loved the way Suma shows how each sister sees the other--I thought that was very authentic. I believed that Chloe felt she was in Ruby's shadow--that the other kids were only friends with her because she was Ruby's sister. I liked it that when Ruby was out of a certain radius of the other kids, they didn't admire her, and didn't want her around (that's the sort of subtle magical realism, unlike disappearing girls, that makes you wonder whether the magic is real). I liked watching Chloe's years-long crush on Owen materialize into a physical relationship, and then dissolve into "he's kind of a jerk." That felt true to real life, and so unlike much of YA. I liked the squicky way Chloe accepted Ruby's manipulation of people, almost as a badge of honor, as a talent--she was proud of her sister, as if she were goddess-like and not a monster. I could sometimes see Ruby adjusting (badly) to the fact that her baby sister was becoming a woman. (Although, again, Ruby's feelings were mostly opaque to me.)
It seems with Suma's books that her energy flags at the end. In the case of 17 & Gone, she muffed up and had her protagonist solve the mystery just in time to save the missing girl, which felt forced.
Maybe she thought she had to have a happy ending because some readers were disappointed by the pessimistic/open ending of Girls
. But in truth, I think she simply couldn't figure out how to end Girls
. I like the fact that it's not a happy ending, but maybe it should have ended right with Ruby's drowning, with Chloe swimming out in time to see her go under for good. Or maybe we should be led to believe that her dad will take her back, since the radius of Ruby's influence is gone for good now. Maybe we should see that she'll limp through the years without her sister, in the same daze of a non-magical life that she lived in without Ruby for those two years.
While Suma is feeling her way around for the ending, she tells us a lot of things we already know, and her usually soaring writing gets a little clunky and repetitious, which is a disappointing way to end it:
All I knew was that she couldn't be down in Olive this long by choice--they were making her stay, punishment for all the things she did. She got too powerful up here on the surface, she stopped being careful, and the people of Olive just didn't like that. I knew that if it were up to her, she'd already be up here, with me.
In sum. I admire this book tremendously, especially Suma's use of language. I love that she tackles the big theme of what devotion to your sister might look like if you had a horrid life (and a bit of cosmic power). I would have liked to have known Ruby better, to feel the connection that could lead to such monstrousness and then self-sacrifice. But no matter what, it was a breath of fresh air from the usual YA.