She was looking for a place to land. 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 think American Girls / My Favourite Manson Girl is possibly the first book that I have felt as though I’ve read a totally different book compared to the large majority of reviews. I don’t think I’ve read a single negative review for this book and yet somehow I just can’t connect the raving reviews, to the pages I read myself? It’s safe to say, I didn’t love this. I had really hoped that I was going to. I should have loved it since it had everything I love in a book, LA, Hollywood, Movies, Mystery, Romance but it didn’t take me long to realise that a romance between me and this book probably wasn’t on the cards. I’m not entirely sure how to go about this review because I have so much to say and no real idea of how to say it, well, say it remotely coherently or eloquently that is. Instead, I think I’m going to show rather than tell and simply leave it up to the quotes and words from the book themselves.
Unless other wise stated, these quotes come from the main character Anna, who’s point of view we follow…
Page 8 – “It had crossed my mind that my sister might be a slut, but a really nice-smelling, clean and carefully closeted slut.” – Anna consistently slut shamed her sister and other girls throughout the book.
Page 10 – “Before mum decided she was a lesbian” – Because this is apparently something you can just ‘decide’? – A stigma and stereotype that doesn’t need anymore miseducation and one that was left unchallenged.
Page 17 – “I started getting more and more nervous, like I was having a panic attack. So I Googled “panic attack” and decided that I didn’t want to start having those at fifteen.” – Again, because apparently this is something you can ‘decide’. – Another unnecessary and uneducated stigma being boosted and once again, left entirely unchallenged.
Page 19 – “If someone had wired her jaw shut, she probably wouldn’t have had to change her diet.” // “When reality sunk in, I remembered that she ate salads without dress when she was starving and seemed to assume that I would just want to do the same.” – Anna made numerous comments regarding her sisters eating habits, all of which felt quite trivialising and slandering towards eating disorders, without going into any depth of the reality of them.
Page 27 – “He had on tight black jeans, a black leather jacket, and had shaved his head into a cancer-victim crew cut.” – I’m not sure I need to explain why, not only describing someone as having a ‘cancer-victim crew cut’, but also using it mostly as an insult is honestly pretty gross and entirely unnecessary…
Page 46 – “I was already thinking of the places I would apply for jobs, maybe the candy store near the lot where my sister was filming. Or one of the ice cream stores with the trendy names and all the girls in line who looked like they kept that ice cream down for about 2.5 seconds.” – Once again, shaming eating disorders and using it as an insult.
Page 54 – Anna’s older sister Delia: “Well, where to start – he’s biracial, but probably whiter than I am.” // Anna about Delia’s dating life: “when it came to actual dating, frat-boy white was last year’s color. In high school, she was strictly interested in black guys. She found the one Nigerian exchange student to take to prom. She once broke up with a perfectly nice biracial kid from the suburbs because he was “too white”. I think Rodger slipped in because he had an accent and wore eye makeup on a semi-regular basis. By sheer virtue of his awesome command of Euro-weird, she must have overlooked the pasty glow of his flesh. Neve mind that she had a lack of pigment rivalled by the walking dead.” – I realise that, being white, I’m not really in any position to say whether or not this is categorically racist but this didn’t sit right with me. It just seemed, once again, entirely necessary. It didn’t add anything to Delia as a character and honestly feels pretty offensive and racist?
Page 56 – “Marilyn Monroe in her fat phase” – Body shaming.
Page 63 – Anna’s Mother: “we don’t know how cancer works. I don’t know what caused this. I don’t know what would make it come back or make it spread, but I do know I can’t have any more stress in my life than I already have.” // “I can’t take the risk that having you hear might make the cancer worse.” – Yes. Her mum essentially blamed Anna for causing her cancer. Charming…
Page 68 – “I thought you told me once there was no such thing as asexual. Just a train from straight to gay with a whole bunch of stops in between.” – Asexual erasure is a very real thing and something I’ve only recently begun educating myself on. This is not only erasure but I’m assuming offensive and once again left entirely unchallenged or revisited.
Page 77 – “there were times when my mom seriously reminded me of a dyked-out Blance DuBois.” – Not sure this needs explaining, nor did it need to be written into a book.
Page 155 – “I would sit in the corner and listen in on people’s first dates, or the baristas bitching about who they thought was throwing up in the ladies’ room.” – Yet again, another trivialisation of eating disorders.
Page 158 – “You don’t have to say anything, do you? You just want to because you have some anorexic teenager buying you pink shirts, and you’re too lazy to work now that the baby is born.” – ‘Anorexic’ being used as an insult, aimed at her fathers new partner.
Page 161 – “How was I supposed to know perfect Paige Parker was a cutter? She was the popular one, what did she have to be mad about?” – Stigmatising self harm and mental illness. These stigmas need to be bought down, not built up and left unchallenged.
Page 214 – “I had breasts, enough that my bra wasn’t just one of those lacy things that flat-chested girls get to be part of the club” – Another example of body shaming…
Page 262 – “But if I had to write a memo to America on what to do to import the future, on how to go back and correct the past, it would be simple: Dear America: Please give your daughters sturdy bedroom doors that lock from the inside. And when they are hungry, give them a place at the table. It wouldn’t solve everything, but it would definitely be a start.” – Despite Anna realising that this wasn’t a solution to rape, the simplicity of the idea that ‘sturdy bedroom locks’ as a solution is what is needed, still left me uneasy.
Given context or not, these passages just didn’t sit well with me at all and almost even more so than the quotes themselves, what bothered me was they were never challenged, apologised for, or (I personally feel) redeemed in anyway. The first 60 pages made me genuinely uncomfortable and not in a good way, as though I was learning or being challenged. Albeit the specific quotes were very saturated within the first 50 or so pages and by the end Anna wasn’t quite so angry at the world and the uncomfortable quotes began to spread out more evenly but despite this, I just don’t see the necessity behind the targeted hate and insults. There was homophobia, ableism and racism. Cancer and Eating Disorders were being used as insults or as trivialising anecdotes. I understand that Anna wasn’t meant to be a likeable character (or at least I assume so, or else I am totally confused at what was going on here) but I just feel as though there must be ways of portraying and creating an unlikeable character, without being outrightly offensive, potentially harmful to the reader, problematic or building up stigmas that people are constantly working hard to bring down. You can make a reader dislike a character without potentially upsetting, miseducating or offending.
All this put aside, I didn’t hate this book. Did I enjoy it? No but I didn’t hate it. Had these quotes been non existent, I probably would have given it around a 3/5 stars. The plot intrigued me and despite my discomfort, I found myself wanting to read on. I also did enjoy the scenes at the film sets and slight insight into that world. But overall, American Girls felt like a book of sub-plots, none of which ever really came to head or had much of an impact or conclusion.
It’s possible that I’m just being uber sensitive and nitpicking at the contents of this book and if that is the case, I fully put my hands up and apologise.
I’m not sure I have too much more to add to this, well that’s not entirely true. I think it’s more of a fact that I think I could probably ramble on about this for pages and days but that’s probably not in anyone’s best interest, nor do I think it’s wise to stumble into the phase of being even more incoherent than I have probably already been. So with that being said, I think I’m going to leave it here. I’d absolutely love to hear your thoughts on this and whether or not you think I’m being entirely oversensitive. Equally, if you’ve read this book I’d love to know what you thought of it and took away from it.