Review: American Girls by Alison Umminger

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Publication: June 7th 2016
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Pages:  368 pages
Source: Bookmobile
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤⛤⛤

“She wasn’t a very pretty girl. That doesn’t sound like a nice thing to say about someone, or like being ugly should have mattered, except that because they were girls, it mattered big-time” (Umminger 71).

You know that feeling of disappointment when you read a hyped up book only to find out it wasn’t as great as you’d hoped? That’s how I felt when I read The Girls by Emma Cline last December. So you’re disappointed that this book that had potential, that you wanted to love but didn’t doesn’t exist in some other form. You wish that the author had gotten it right, or at the very least that their was someone else who had written the book. Luckily for me, there was Alison Umminger’s American Girls.

American Girls is exactly what I’d hoped The Girls would be. Both stories, while similar, follow completely different plots. The Girls follows Evie who remembers her time as a teenager in the 60s/70s and how she joined a group of girls very similar to Manson’s Family. American Girls is set in modern day and follows Anna who “borrowed” her stepmother’s credit card to book a flight to L.A. and for the summer lives with her wannabe actress half-sister Delia, traveling to different movie sets and locations while Anna is assigned by one of her sister’s directors to research the Manson Girls for a role her sister will be playing. While different stories, both books concern themselves with the Manson Family and murders (whether directly or indirectly) and both deal with the vulnerability of being a teenager, the ache to belong and fit in, and the struggles of being a woman, but American Girls does it better.

When I found American Girls at the bookmobile and decided to pick it up, I wondered why the book sounded so familiar even though the title wasn’t, and then I realized I had seen it on bookstagram during the summer under the title My Favourite Manson Girl, which is what the book is called in the U.K. (and is a much better title in my opinion). And that just made me ask more questions, like why the title had changed but I’d never heard that the change was happening. Did the publisher’s think that American Girls was a more appealing title in North American (because I don’t think it is)? Was it because American Girls and The Girls came out literally a week apart (American Girls came out first though)? Was it to avoid confusion about which book people wanted to read (The Girls did get a lot more press than American Girls)? Was it because Random House is a bigger publishing house than Flatiron and bullied their way into being Summer 2016’s “It” novel? We’ll probably never know, but it’s something worth thinking about.

I loved reading from Anna’s perspective. She was witty, sarcastic, flawed, and real. Some of the things she says are completely wrong and surprised me when I started, like when she talked about her mother “deciding to be a lesbian” or calling Delia a slut a few times throughout, and while I’m not forgiving that from being said it’s always good to think of context. Anna’s parents are recently divorced because Anna’s mother came out as a lesbian and now Anna lives with her two mom’s and her baby half-brother. I’ve never been in a situation like this, but I imagine it can’t be easy. I’m not saying what Anna says about her mom is right, but Anna has known her mom as being a straight woman in a straight relationship so her coming out must have been shocking, and must have been hard for her to accept such a dramatic shift in her life. (Again, not forgiving Anna for her poor choice of words for her mother coming out, but Delia also said that before the divorce between Anna’s parents their mom had said that watching one of Delia’s horror movies had grossed her out so much she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to have sex with a man again. I’m not saying their mom isn’t a lesbian because this character wasn’t actually seen in the novel, but again context is good.) Also, Anna’s comments about calling her sister a slut are resolved throughout the book as she reads more about the Manson Girls and gets more introspective about female agency and identity.

So after that long rant about defending Anna (again, not forgiving her by any means), I really liked reading such a realistic character, and I loved how at the end Anna recognized her own faults and started to rethink the reasons why she had used her stepmother’s credit card and come to L.A.. It was refreshing to see how she grew in a realistic way, also the romance was a minimum which is always a plus for me!

I also loved the relationship between Anna and Delia. They bickered, they fought, they laughed, and overall they loved each other. Again, in novels centering on women it’s all too common to see these characters tearing each other apart and destroying one another just to get ahead, just to be powerful, just to be seen. While this narrative usually happens against friends, it also happens with sisters and it needs to stop. I loved how Anna and Delia supported each other, and they had a very touching moment near the end which gave this book a special place in my heart and will definitely be on my list for Favourite Reads of 2017.

American Girls was an addicting read and I loved getting to read about a character trying to understand herself through the Manson Girls, and recognizing why women can be coerced or just do terrible things. While The Girls tried to get into the Manson Girl’s heads with Evie, American Girls doesn’t do this. Yes, Anna tries to understand the Manson Girl’s, but she does it realistically. She recognizes that they were young women like her. Young women who struggled a bit, young women who wanted to be noticed, young women who wanted to be powerful. And yes, they went about it in the wrong way, but they could have been any girl walking down the street had they chosen a different path. After all, anyone can be a Manson Girl.

 

 

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