Book Review: Dreams of Significant Girls by Cristina García
This book made so many recommendation lists that I added it to my Christmas list, but reading it proved less than satisfying.
1970s. In a prestigious summer camp in Switzerland, three girls from different backgrounds must come together as roommates to navigate first loves and heartbreaks. Eager Vivien, who loves to cook, hails from the United States and treasures her Cuban heritage. Shirin, the prickly “Iranian princess,” prefers mathematics textbooks and horses to people. Ingrid, the rebellious Canadian artist, will do anything but the expected. Together, they find their differences don’t matter if they support each other.
The characters are the shining strength of the book. Each is distinct enough that dialogue tags are unnecessary for knowing who is speaking. They behave in the emotionally driven way of teenagers, consistent with their individual personalities. I enjoyed getting to know them, which made everything else a disappointment.
The friendship between the girls was rushed. On one page, they’re enemies, and by the next chapter, best friends? The book claims to focus on friendship, but little support made it onto the page. In fact, there were several serious trials that the girls kept secret from one another. If anything, the friends complicated each others’ troubles rather than alleviate them.
The plot reads like a bundle of periodicals, with few threads carrying through the entire narrative. Most of the unfortunate episodes end negatively and are never processed or resolved. I don’t mind reading about bad decisions and tragedy, but these girls failed to learn anything from their mistakes, or the mistakes of the surrounding adults.
The publishers could re-title this book Fourteen-Year-Old Girls Discover Sex because most of the story revolved around sex. The girls experienced everything from digital rape (explicitly described) to masturbation to a full sexual relationship with a much older adult man.
Sex is common in young adult literature (though I question Simon & Schuster’s Age 14 and up rating), but the sex in this book served no real purpose to the overall story.
The girls stumble blindly into their relationships, which I suppose is typical for teens, but they don’t gain any insights from their exploits. Shirin’s experience, which triggers her mental breakdown, goes unaddressed for the rest of the book. I don’t consider myself prudish, but the relationship with an older man receives a much too positive a portrayal for even my tastes. The book supposedly focuses on friendship, but aside from a kissing lesson from Ingrid (during which she has the others practice on her), the girls navigate the joys and perils of their relationships alone.
The author included some family drama, but most of it takes place outside the girls’ control and participation. Divorce and remarriage, dark family secrets, religious tradition faced with modern culture—the author had more than enough, perhaps too much, material to work into a telling story. Instead, that drama is communicated via the occasional lunch date with a visiting relative. The girls practically don’t take part in their own families’ lives. They show little interest in doing so, preoccupied as they are with sex.
I finished this random collection of sexual exploits and family drama and thought, “What was the point?” The author injected no meaning or growth into the narrative, which left me feeling like I’d paid for an expensive dinner and received a plate of cold potatoes.
The author does a fantastic job creating a distinct voice for each character. Her prose is clean and pretty. However, most of the story is summarized in diary-style entries rather than dramatized, making it hard for readers to experience the story vicariously.
* Spoilers Begin *
Shirin’s subplot was so mishandled that I feel the need to spoil it. After she is raped at the ball and has a mental breakdown, she requests her new best friends meet her back at boarding school. Vivien and Ingrid don’t consider her a friend yet and wonder why the heck she invited them, but even after they do become close, Shirin never mentions her rape. I understand why she would keep silent, but even when she moves on to a consensual relationship, she doesn’t process her trauma. It magically resolves, which strikes me as unrealistic, even for someone who suppresses the memory.
Her friends, even without knowing the root of her issues, could have helped her work through them. Instead, Ingrid gives her a kissing lesson, her new boyfriend manually stimulates her such that she has an orgasm riding her horse, and everything is hunky-dory.
Later, after her consensual relationship leaves her pregnant, Shirin takes an herbal abortifacient and experiences serious hemorrhaging. She confesses to Vivien that her periods are now black and sickly and coming twice as often. The subplot ends there. Shirin is having serious health complications, but the reader is left to assume they magically resolve along with her trauma. Only the fact that Shirin later has a daughter reveals that she recovered. Furthermore, Shirin never tells Ingrid of her experience, which seems a grave oversight in a book about the power of friendship.
* Spoilers End *
I wanted to like this book. I love the concept of three very different girls supporting each other as they come of age. The author does a fantastic job crafting interesting characters and giving them unique voices, but Dreams of Significant Girls felt more like Sexual Exploits of Confused Girls. Neither inspiring nor impactful, the story derives no meaning from the girls’ experiences, and much of the significant family drama occurs without their participation.
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