Saturday, February 4, 2017

Book Review: American Girls by Alison Umminger

I got this book this summer, almost the same week as when I got The Girls by Emma Cline, and I was a little weirded out by two young adult novels, published at the same time, both about the Charles Manson murders. SO I put off reading this one so they wouldn't blur together in my mind. I wish I hadn't! This book was much more mainstream and accessible and I think teens would identify with it much more.

For one thing, it isn't historical. It's set now, when Anna, a fifteen-year-old, is sick of her mother and step-mother and when her mother and father tell her they're making her switch schools, and when her mother lectures her on being nicer to her step-mother (to be clear, her mother's wife), and even though she loved her baby half-brother she's also sick of her mother's constant breast-feeding (he's well over a year old) and doting and her complete ignoring of Anna. So Anna buys a plane ticket from Atlanta to Los Angeles to visit her half sister, Delia (none of the three siblings have the same two parents), using her step-mother's credit card. Busted immediately (while she's still in the air, in fact), Anna is told to not come home without the money to repay her step-mother and she has to earn her return ticket too. Delia is an actress and her ex-boyfriend hired Anna to do research for a film he's making with Delia about the Manson murders.

At one point in the middle of the book, I started to get pretty creeped out by the Manson stuff, to the point where I wasn't sure if I'd be able to continue reading the book at night, but just then it stopped being so creepy. But it's amazing that reading about a girl reading about these murder could be creepy at all, and it was. Ms. Umminger is quite good at scene-setting in a subtle way. You feel the Los Angeles chilly mornings and the solitude of Delia's neighborhood (which can feel desolate at times) and the grittiness of the neighborhoods where they film, and then the bubble-gum candy pop stylings of the teeny-bopper show where Delia's boyfriend works, and where Anna spends most of her days, especially getting to know one of the male stars of the show.

I really liked the conceit that Anna had to write a paper to finish up her history class (when she left Atlanta school wasn't exactly over yet) and that of course she's going to end up writing about Manson you know, but the teacher poses an interesting second question about Why Los Angeles? What's so great about it? And it's not a rhetorical question—she's expected to answer that in her paper as well.

Towards the end there's a really great summary that Anna gives of Charles Manson that I even had to read out loud to my husband, it was so prescient and so sad and scary at the same time. Basically, he was just a narcissist who was so angered by having his music rejected, that he lashed out in a terrible
way, and if he'd been born 30 years later, instead of having his followers murder people, he probably just would have gotten a reality TV show on TLC and no one would be murdered. It seems pretty accurate to me.

After The Girls, I thought about reading Helter Skelter (and Manson by Jeff Guinn) but I'm just not sure. They just seems too depressing (which was also what Anna thought, reading these books and other like them). But at the same time, I feel so curious.

But this was a great YA novel about fractured families, what it means to really love your family even when they're difficult, how hard growing up is, and of course a little bit of Los Angeles-gazing to see if it's really as shiny and pretty as it seems from afar. A terrific book for teen girls who won't feel the least bit talked down to or lectured. Anna's voice is very true.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I was given this book by the publisher, but not with the expectation that I would write a review.

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