What I’m Reviewing: American Girls by Alison Umminger
Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, 6/7/2016
Genre: Contemporary YA
Notable Works by Author: It’s a debut!!!!!
Summary…In a Nutshell
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.
I can already tell this is going to be a hard review to write. That’s always the case though with books that blow me away so completely; I can never seem to find the words. Granted, rendering me speechless is a tough feat in and of itself, reserved solely for the books with everything going for them. It’s a problem I don’t mind having though. Even better is when I can give the distinction to a rare five star read (my first of this year), such as Alison Umminger’s American Girls. It’s hard for me to pin down what exactly I found so intoxicating about protagonist Anna’s journey, but it’s safe to say I was hooked. Having read it in a mere two days, it seemed like my every waking moment was dedicated only to the consumption of this fascinating story. This may give the impression that Umminger’s debut is packed with action and suspense, that I was hanging on the content of every page. While the latter is true, American Girls is a rare breed of contemporary YA that is quiet in all manners of its presentation. From characters to atmosphere to the underlying message, this story relies heavily on readers to draw their own conclusions. Perhaps the aspect of AG most benefited by this unique distance from conventional storytelling was the Manson Girls subplot. It would have been easy for the oft-sensationalized story of Charles Manson to quickly go off the rails, descending into a portrayal of madness and hysteria. Instead Umminger paints a portrait of “regular” girls at the wrong place (California) in the wrong time (60’s) that perfectly mirrors Anna’s own look at modern violence and the American dream. At its core though, know that AG is not in any way, shape, or form about the Manson family. It’s merely a jumping off point for Anna’s story to be set in motion. Going along with that train of thought, let me say how utterly fantastic the characters are in this book. I’m a sucker for melancholy introspection and dynamic relationships, both of which AG delivers in spades. For starters, Anna is an amazing voice to read this particular story through. She’s deeply cynical, a little lost, and mostly a good person…a perfect embodiment of the story’s soul if ever I saw one. Not only is she hilarious (this book is also wicked funny, by the way) but all around refreshing as well. She has a lot of deep thoughts about a lot of deep things (in a decidedly non precocious way) that really got me thinking on the topics Umminger presented. Much like Anna comes to realize anyone could wind up a Manson girl, the real genius to our protagonist’s characterization is the sheer “everyman” nature of it. Because at its essence AG is all about coming to age, albeit unique in its presentation. Speaking of characters who could stand to grow up a bit; we have Anna’s big sis/struggling actress Delia and the cautionary tale that is Olivia Taylor. Both are struggling to find what comes after the prospect of youth and beauty has faded, and present interesting takes on the underbelly of LA’s glittery allure. Though the two aren’t always heavy on the page time, each play an integral role in establishing a multifaceted, dynamic relationship with Anna. Olivia in particular captured my attention, as she exemplifies the other side of the tabloid fodder that is washed up celebrity has beens. I never would have guessed I could muster up so much sympathy for a chronic drug abuser, serial shopaholic, and all around morally questionable human, but leave it to Umminger to surprise me yet again. Actually that’s what a lot of AG is all about. Tackling the personal side of a story that doesn’t fit the bill LA needs to be perceived as a city of dreams. Each character (there are several more worth taking note of) fulfills a kind of Hollywood stereotype, and further works to build the palpable atmosphere present throughout.
The best kind of books are those where the ending utilizes all the storytelling aspects I mentioned above, weaving them into a heartrending conclusion. Such is the case with American Girls. Alison Umminger proves her prowess as a debut author, taking all the rules traditionally assigned to contemporary’s, and turning them on their head. I eagerly await her next novel, and until that happens I recommend you read this one. If nothing else, let this be your dark horse for #1 book 2K16.