Phoebe's Reviews > Imaginary Girls

Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
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Jul 02, 11

bookshelves: loved-it, young-adult, magical-realism, feminism, chick-lit
Read from June 20 to July 01, 2011


That's the first word I'd use to describe Nova Ren Suma's young adult debut Imaginary Girls. It's the story of two sisters who live in a weedy backwoods area of New York State. One sister, our narrator Chloe, is considered the quieter shadow of big sis Ruby—a girl who somehow manages to bewitch an entire town into doing whatever she wants, no matter how sinister.

But it's a slow-growing power, made all-the-more creepy by Chloe's obsessive, oftentimes fawning regard for Ruby. While the other denizens of their town are sometimes able to shake Ruby's spell—even a girl who Ruby may or may not have brought back from the dead seems to find her demand for whimsy and worship tiresome—Chloe's unable to differentiate herself from her sister even when it's in her own best interest. This creates a claustrophobic, uncomfortable read. The reader knows that Ruby is bad news, and bad news for Chloe. But Chloe refuses to listen, insisting again and again that Ruby knows best. "Sisters told each other every last thing; especially the younger sister," Chloe tells us, in a matter-of-fact manner that perhaps belies how insanely fucked up such an attitude is while neatly failing to acknowledge it, "The youngest sister couldn't have secrets. She was who she was because of who came first" (237, ARC edition).

In this way, Imaginary Girls is a treatise on abuse and control, but of course this isn't the type of psychological abuse one is accustomed to reading about in young adult literature. Usually we read about boys hurting girls, or parents hurting children. That this is a story about an older sister who has her little sister wrapped around her little finger makes it all the more sinister. Weird. Creepy. Ruby is the kind of woman that's only hinted about in books like Kirsten Hubbard's Like Mandarin or Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride--a manic pixie dream girl gone horribly wrong. A witch who uses her seduction and charm to bend the world around her to her whims.

But she's not quite as simple as all of that, either.

Because Imaginary Girls is not a fantasy story, not exactly. Instead, it sits squarely in the slippery, unsettling realm of magical realism. I recently had a conversation with the ladies over at YA Highway where we struggled to define that genre. I cautiously submitted that a magical realist text is different from other types of contemporary fantasy. It's not enough to have fantastical elements in the real world. Instead, a book within the genre needs to have the boundaries of the fantastical elements shift constantly. An effective fantasy novel will give you some sort of framework for understanding it. Magical realism refuses that framework. As in a dream, the boundaries of the possible must always be moving, though the logic should still seem intuitive within the novel itself. It's a precarious balance—and the effect is quite often unsettling, bordering on horrifying.

For this reason, I'm not entirely sure that Imaginary Girls will appeal to its target audience. I'll come right out and say that I didn't appreciate (or even really understand) magical realism as a teen. In fact, even two years ago I was criticizing Kelly Link's masterful Magic for Beginners as being too unsettling. Of the title story in that collection, I said, "when she casually mentions that the characters in 'Magic for Beginners' are fictional television characters, despite the fact that they otherwise seems completely grounded in our reality, I couldn't help but wonder: Why? To what end? How is the story enhanced by this?"

I reread that story recently, and was pleased to find that I'd grown as a reader. I could see how perfectly Link utilizes the fantastic elements to underscore the poignant family story—and how the vertigo-inducing nature of that story enhanced the protagonist's uncertain family and romantic situation. In fact, it was a story that could not be told any other way. I would say that the same is true for Imaginary Girls. It needs to be a book that encompasses the supernatural but is not about the supernatural. I'm just not positive that teens will enjoy being unsettled in this way, but perhaps I was unique in my adolescent literal-mindedness.

I'm uncertain, too, if the language will appeal to that age group. It's both beautiful and repetitive. For example, Suma writes, "There was the tattoo shop where Ruby got her eyebrow pierced, then decided she didn't want her eyebrow pierced and instead got her nose pierced, then decided she really didn't want anything pierced, not even her ears" (60), and most of the story is told this way, with negations, repetitions, clarifications. The pace isn't slow, not precisely. It is, instead, droning and hypnotic. Imaginary Girls could be considered more than a book but also a book of spells. It's perfectly conceived in this way, the language underscoring the thematics and story. It could be told in another way, but it wouldn't be nearly as effective. I'm just not entirely certain that today's young generation of Hunger Games-loving teens will fall so deeply for it.

But I would not for a moment hesitate to suggest it for adult readers, particularly those who enjoy lovely, well-conceived language that enshrouds a haunting story about women and magic and control. It might sound silly, but I'd say that I was ensorcelled by Suma's story—captivated in the most literal sense of the term. Though my journey with Ruby wasn't always a comfortable one, I'm quite eager to see where Suma takes us next.

A review copy of this volume was generously provided by the publisher.
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Reading Progress

06/23/2011 page 15
06/25/2011 page 68
19.0% "Awesome book so far."
06/28/2011 page 148
42.0% "When someone asks me what magical realism is, I'm going to point to this book." 6 comments
06/29/2011 page 191
54.0% "Have I mentioned that this story takes places in a county over from where I'm moving? Feels very surreal to read." 1 comment
06/29/2011 page 255
72.0% "Holy shit."

Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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message 1: by Kirsten (new) - added it

Kirsten Hubbard <3 hope you love it

Phoebe God, just read the first chapter and it's killing me already.

message 3: by Cory (new) - added it

Cory Phoebe wrote: "God, just read the first chapter and it's killing me already."

In a good or bad way?

Phoebe Cory wrote: "Phoebe wrote: "God, just read the first chapter and it's killing me already."

In a good or bad way?"


Sean Wills I've been curious about this one for a while!

Sarah It's sitting on my shelf and I can't wait to get to it.

Gabry Excited for your review. Reading your statuses were torture~

message 8: by Kirsten (new) - added it

Kirsten Hubbard beautiful, beautiful review. you nailed exactly why I love this book so much.

"Imaginary Girls could be considered more than a book but also a book of spells."

just so right on. and I absolutely love your definition of magical realism.

message 9: by Cory (new) - added it

Cory I love magical realism. Marquez was one of the only authors I enjoyed in high school.

Phoebe Cory wrote: "I love magical realism. Marquez was one of the only authors I enjoyed in high school."

I wish I could have appreciated it more! I really wanted to understand the rules of a book's universe--if it was contemporary, I wanted it explicit; if not, I wanted to know exactly how the fantasy worked. Which of course would be a bit of a violation of the rules of magical realism!

message 11: by Cory (new) - added it

Cory I know how that is. For fantasy, I'm more lax than I am with sci-fi as long as the rules of logic aren't crazy bent.

message 12: by Cassie (new) - added it

Cassie Nice review. I was intrigued by the dynamics between the sisters and now am curious about the way it's written, as you've mentioned. Looking forward to reading it!

Phoebe Hope you guys enjoy it! It's really a strange, beautiful read.

Sarah Just finished reading it and I loved it as much as you did. Great review.

Wendy Darling I loved this book--and I love your review, Phoebe.

Phoebe Wendy Darling wrote: "I loved this book--and I love your review, Phoebe."

Aw, thanks, Wendy!

Karen Amazing review

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