Dreams of Significant Girls

This book made so many recommendation lists that I added it to my Christmas list. I love the concept of three very different girls supporting each other as they come of age, but…

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.

Description

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.

Characters

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.

Plot

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.

Writing Style

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.

Miscellaneous

* 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 *

Conclusion

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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This Tender Land

My Grandmother likes to support local authors, which for her means Minnesotan. Krueger is one of her favorites. He envisioned this book as an update of Huckleberry Finn, and he achieved that goal.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

My Grandmother likes to support local authors, which for her means Minnesotan. Krueger is one of her favorites. This is the second one I’ve checked out from her library.

Cover Description

“In the summer of 1932, on the banks of Minnesota’s Gilead River, Odie O’Banion is an orphan confined to the Lincoln Indian Training School, a pitiless place where his lively nature earns him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee after committing a terrible crime, he and his brother, Albert, their best friend, Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own. Over the course of one summer, these four orphans journey into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds.”

Characters

Odie is a classic rebel whose longing for a home and family makes him endearing. His spunk and ingenuity provide a great contrast to his strict brother and easy-going best friend, but what is most remarkable is how the characters change throughout the story. The Great Depression provides the fiery furnace to refine young boys into men, and each character’s unique skills play a part in their survival. Their struggles are at once heartbreaking and inspiring, and their loyalty to each other as family is a poignant reminder that love is stronger than blood.

Plot

The plot follows Odie and his friends as they flee the training school’s superintendent and head down the Mississippi River toward their aunt’s home in St. Louis. Along the way, they meet other down-and-out drifters, some alleys, some enemies, some a mixture of both. Overall, the story moves at a good pace and is engaging the entire length.

Writing Style

Krueger’s vivid descriptions capture the feel and struggle of The Great Depression. His prose moves smoothly across the page—neither overly descriptive nor sparse. Of the two of his books I’ve read, I liked this one best.

One thing I admire about Krueger’s writing is that he does not hesitate to portray history’s horrors, especially with the treatment of Native Americans. He sensitively portrays Mose coming to terms with his identity, his people’s history, and his friendship with three white kids.

Krueger also includes elements of mysticism in his writing, in this case with the faith healer and Emmy’s gift. I am not as big a fan of this, but I didn’t find it bothersome.

Conclusion

The author said he envisioned this book as an update of Huckleberry Finn, and he achieved that goal. His spunky protagonists and their harrowing journey capture the spirit of adventure endemic to that tale. Setting their adventure during The Great Depression immerses the reader in time and space much like Where the Crawdads Sing. Overall, their journey of hardship and friendship make for a brilliant read.

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