We’re back with a pair review of Imaginary Girls, a creepy genre-bending novel from Nova Ren Suma, whom we’ll be twitter-viewing tomorrow. Two of the three of us read it and liked it a lot, so we thought we’d offer up our takes on what makes this book one you should read.
Imaginary Girls is a deceptive book. At first read, it seems so very different from the usual teen fare. When attempting to describe the plot to others, however, it’s difficult for me to explain how it’s different, since many of the plot elements are just like other currently-hot YA novels.
Chloe, our protagonist, is a teenager living in New York. Her older sister Ruby, a by turns threatening and loving presence throughout the novel, dares Chloe to swim across a reservoir one night while her friends watch. Ruby has told everyone a story of a city named Olive that exists beneath the reservoir, and she wants Chloe to bring back a souvenir from the city. While swimming across the reservoir, Chloe discovers the dead body of her classmate floating in a boat in the middle of the body of water. Before the classmate’s body can be explained, Chloe is sent away from her sister and the reservoir to live with her father.
But Ruby misses Chloe and comes to claim her one day. Chloe goes back to New York and the reservoir with her sister, and it’s at this point in the book that we become truly aware of Ruby’s power. It’s a power she has not only over Chloe, but over the entire town in which she resides. She draws men to her easily – and discards them just as easily when she grows tired of them. She’s able to get anyone to do anything for her, by any means she chooses. One day, Ruby decides to give directives via balloon – she writes messages inside helium balloons and sends them up for anyone and everyone to discover. Sure enough, all of her directives are followed by whoever finds the balloons.
Suma writes this aspect of Ruby in such a way that it doesn’t come across as malicious on Ruby’s part, or even really that manipulative. We even grow to love Ruby a little, since we see her through Chloe’s eyes, and Chloe loves her dearly. It’s also clear that Ruby loves Chloe dearly, but it’s a complicated relationship made more complicated by the truth about the city named Olive and the dead classmate in the reservoir.
What ultimately sets this book apart is its writing. Nova Ren Suma has created a deliciously creepy book full of odd happenings all seen through a sort of haze. It’s difficult to get a handle on what’s really going on, because Chloe herself isn’t always sure. That aspect gives the book a feeling of magical realism rather than straight up fantasy or paranormal. And even though Imaginary Girls has elements of the paranormal, which can be found in so many current YA books, you’ll come away from it knowing you’ve really never read anything like it.
Imaginary Girls is being marketed as a book about sisterhood, and that relationship between Chloe and Ruby is the element that drives the story. Ruby has a few secrets that are revealed slowly over the course of the novel, and they impact in a big way how Chloe relates to her. It was refreshing to read a book completely devoid of romance – this book is an exploration of sisterhood and Suma ensures our attention is focused completely on that relationship and no other.
It’s not a fast-paced book. It’s meant to be read slowly, so you can savor the language and let the mood pull you in. That also means it’s not going to be a book for everyone, but for readers looking for something a bit different, this definitely fits the bill.
I’m going to pick up on something Kim talks about: the language. Suma’s book is meant to be savored. It’s a slow build, but it’s an immediate draw, too — this is a literary work, one with lush descriptions that beg to be appreciated for their use as language and for what they do for the setting and story as a whole. In this, we’re tossed into a world that is at once completely familiar to us and one that’s also completely foreign. And it’s by being put into this position through little more than the language and writing itself that we know something strange is amiss. Ruby’s built in this world, and she’s further fleshed through the adoration Chloe has for her.
One element that Kim didn’t talk too much about and the one that really sort of encompassed the entire story for me was London. That’s the girl whose body was pulled from the reservoir. London becomes a symbol for the relationship between Chloe and Ruby, and I think this is where I got a lot of the chills in reading this book. She’s a representation of their relationship, as well as representation for Chloe’s belief in Ruby. This fits in with the legend of Olive, too, another element of the story to which I latched as a reader.
It was very refreshing to read a story that undulates between realistic and fantastic. I think these stories are important and are far too rare; isn’t it true that readers want to have something to grasp (the realistic) and yet want somewhere to escape to, too (the fantastic, the magical, the otherworldly)? This helps develop this creepy world. It’s just real enough but not pushed far enough in the fantastical to be written off as unbelievable.
The relationship building in this story is strong and memorable. I’ve not read many stories that do explore the idea of sisterhood, and certainly nothing that explores it on this kind of level. I’ve never been a sister, though I’ve had sister-like figures in my life, and it’s easy to buy and understand Chloe’s fascination and her desire to do what Ruby says. Ruby’s magnetic. If I were Chloe, it would be hard for me not to want to do what she says, what she asks. I’d want her approval. The relationship here was a little reminiscent — and I emphasize a little — of the one between Grace and Mandarin in Kirsten Hubbard’s Like Mandarin. As a reader, you’re drawn in entirely, and you’re forced to buy into the mindset of the character telling the story. Falling into Chloe’s mind is easy, especially because she builds up this mythically-real person in Ruby. As I was talking to Kim about what exactly it is that makes Imaginary Girls so creepy, I think that this might be part of it. We buy 100% into the devotion Chloe has for Ruby and we’re buying everything Ruby sells to us, even if it seems absurd, strange, surreal. We want to buy in because she’s magical. She makes things happen and not happen and we’re along for the ride right there with Chloe. This, in conjunction with the real-yet-not-real setting and story, conjures chills for me, even thinking about it months after reading the book.
When I finished the book, I couldn’t help but recall the experience I had reading one of my favorite books for the first time, Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. The moments of magic, the moments of sheer insight into the story and character, and the prose that begs to be read aloud really came together. Fans of Bender, who writes for adults, will find this book one they need to pick up (doesn’t hurt she also blurbs it!). I won’t ruin tomorrow’s Twitterview, where we get a little more insight into the story and inspiration, but this book definitely recalled some of the moments I had in reading Laura Kasischke’s Feathered a few years ago. Fans of contemporary lit will definitely appreciate this story, and those who want a story with a little magic or a little horror will find a lot to like in Suma’s book. There is easy crossover appeal for adults with this book, too.
To the totally superficial, totally unrelated to what Suma herself brings to the book: the cover. When I first saw it, I was attracted, but it was after reading the book and picking up on the purpose of each element in the cover made it a hundred times more powerful. Each of the items — the dress, the girl with the red hair, the ribbon — plays a role in the story, and this cover really sells the book aesthetically, but then it also gives readers an opportunity to put together the pieces.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this will be one of my Printz potential picks this year. It’s different enough with enough appeal for teens to be readable and commercial, but the language and style are so strong, they lift this book to a more literary level, as well. It had a lot of early buzz and press, and it’s my hope that excitement for this title sustains through the year, since it’s one worthy of attention.
Review copies received at ALA and TLA. Imaginary Girls will be released by Penguin Dutton on June 14.