Title: Imaginary Girls [Indie Bound] [Amazon]
Author: Nova Ren Suma [website] [twitter] [facebook]
Genre: Contemporary, Magical Realism
Publisher: Dutton Children’s Books
Parental Advisory: drugs, alcohol, criminal activity, death
Teachable Moments: dealing with grief
“When I looked back at Ruby, something had changed in her face. Her skin still glowed, her lips flushed without need of her lipstick, and her eyes taking on the green of the trees, but that was only what she was showing on the surface. Underneath, there were things she wasn’t letting me see.
Things involving the reservoir, I felt sure of that. Things involving Olive.”
Summary (from the publisher):
Chloe’s older sister, Ruby, is the girl everyone looks to and longs for, who can’t be captured or caged. After a night with Ruby’s friends goes horribly wrong and Chloe discovers a dead body floating in the reservoir, Chloe is sent away — away from home, away from Ruby.
But Ruby will do anything to get her sister back, and when Chloe returns home at last, she finds a precarious and deadly balance waiting for her. As Chloe flirts with the truth that Ruby has hidden deeply away, the fragile line between life and death is redrawn by the complex bods of sisterhood.
When I first started reading Imaginary Girls I was a bit disconcerted by Chloe’s worship of her sister Ruby. In my mind it bordered on obsession at a most unhealthy level. But the further I got into the story the more I realized the fact that this was exactly what I’m supposed to be feeling. I’m supposed to be experiencing this unfathomable bond between two sisters as they are challenged with recovering from a traumatic event.
This event happened one night while the sisters were at a party in an old quarry. Hanging out with Ruby and her friends Chloe immediately took the challenge to swim across the quarry in the dark alone in order to impress everyone. Well, maybe more to impress and satisfy Ruby, but because she wanted to fit in amongst the crowd and because she almost desperately wanted Ruby’s unwavering approval she went ahead and did it. Only about halfway across Chloe made a gruesome discovery — a classmate by the name of London’s dead body floating in a small boat. Thus starts the sister’s tumultuous journey as Chloe is immediately sent away to live with her father while Ruby is forced to stay back home. Both miss each other terribly (for different reasons) and are desperate to find a way to be back together despite the obstacles put in their way.
The characters in Imaginary Girls are complex of that you can be sure. There is always something more just below the surface. At first look, Chloe seems a bit the tag-a-long. Her older, wiser, and far more experienced sister Ruby is the local legend. She’s the unobtainable “get” that every boy loved desperately and waned to tie into a commitment but she was having none of it. She wanted control to be sure but not much more. Ruby at the start seems to treat Chloe more as a pet than a sister. Though there was love between them it seems quite uneven and in favor of Ruby’s wants and needs over Chloe’s. However, as the story moves forward and the characters are further defined and explored I found that their relationship was actually the opposite. There was a definite co-dependence. Ruby needed validation and attention while Chloe wanted to feel needed, significant and essential in at least one person’s life. Both were looking for the kind of all encompassing love where they are put first in the eyes of the giver. The disparity was in the fact that at first glance it appeared that Chloe tended to put Ruby first by choice. She raised her sister onto that pedestal and gave her the power to hold court. Ruby simply couldn’t resist the appeal of being the center of her sister’s world. Frankly she loved being the center of everyone’s world.
However, as the story progresses I saw the deep rooted bonds the two had went way beyond the superficiality that others saw in them. This was in no small part attributed to the fact that much of the story is based on a magical thread infused into the story. The best way for me to describe it is a kind of etherial feeling. A hazy glow that surrounded the two girls, though more so around Ruby than Chloe. Ruby seemed the pied piper of the town; the one girl everyone would follow no matter what. Men will do unspeakable things for her just to see a smile or feel a touch. Girls want to be her and be like her. Chloe, she just wants her sister to truly love and support her in the same way she does in return.
But I digress as there are far more interesting magical elements (most specifically related to the legend of Olive — the city under the water of the quarry — and London’s death) in the story that emphasize both the characters individual traits as well as their relationship and interactions together. Olive, the town beneath the quarry, being the symbol of the perfect life they are both looking to lead and London, being the person that bound the two together in tragedy and lead them through realizations related to themselves individually and their relationship.
Suma’s writing is thoughtful and thorough. It’s not overly indulgent with heavy flowery prose but does paint both a vivid picture and conveys the extreme emotion of the plot. It’s the kind of writing that I’m particularly drawn to because it’s not simplistic in the least but reads so easily. The dialogue is meaningful and more importantly straight-forward. The words Chloe and Ruby spoke had impact for not being overly descriptive in nature. Furthermore, I’ve always been fond of stories and writing that makes me actually feel something physically and Imaginary Girls did that in droves. I often found my stomach dropping, my heart rate increasing any my eyes welling with tears. To me, that evoking of emotion makes the book.
If it felt like I was talking in circles in this review it’s because that is exactly how this book made me feel. Upside down then right side up, all in the best possible way. Suma is one of the few authors I’ve read that I wouldn’t fear stepping outside of my typical reading boundaries to get hold of her stories. I’d read anything, anywhere, anytime if she wrote it.