"An ultimately hopeful story of a girl who is deeply confused and self-destructive, who must confront her own sense of what it means to be a girl, and what it means to give and receive love."
I'm an avid reader of YA lit. I'd say about 80% of my reading is YA. With that, rarely do I find myself sitting back and feeling like maybe I'm too old to still be reading in this genre. Almost never. What Girls Are Made Of made me feel like that. I was all, do I really want to be reading about someone's first experience having a pap smear? Do I need to have the function of the morning after pill described to me? Do I... I mean... the list goes on. There's so much of this. It's not hidden in the story, either. I would say that these little snippets of sex ed. are one of the biggest take aways from the novel.
So maybe that's a good thing, right? Except that I don't think young people necessarily want a novel to be lecturing at them. Surely no teen isn't able to see right through Arnold's intentions here, and it does the story no favours. Some of the 'conversations' are so carefully scripted it's painful. An early scene, in which Nina overhears a young woman purchasing the morning after pill is the perfect example of this. The entire scene has no narrative purpose other than to educate the reader.
I would forgive these inserts (no pun intended) if it weren't for the fact that I didn't enjoy the story one little bit. The characters are all jerks, perhaps with the exception of Bekah, who is such a minor, 2D character she barely counts anyway. Furthermore, what a young person might 'gain' in sexual health education, they will surely lose in the role-modelling of super catty behaviour. Nina is basically a mean girl, who describes her (apparently only) friend as "harmless--kind of vapid, but nice." Errr. Yeah.
The book aims to shock. It's rough and 'edgy'. I've read shocking, rough and edgy. I'm not afraid of a subversive novel, but I do tend to expect something more from them. I don't think there was enough here. For me there is so much power to be found in subtlety, but this is a brutal perspective of femininity, and for all that, it leaves so, so much out.
In her rationale for the novel Arnold describes a 'regrettable' incident in her youth, where she admits that her own legs are 'perfect', to a friend who's legs were 'not as lithe as (hers)'. I couldn't help but think that she is surely missing the point here. There's nothing to regret about self-love, but knocking someone else down (not in the moment in this case) in the process is #allthesadfaces in my books. Likewise, Nina isn't un-feminist for obsessing about her boyfriend. She's perfectly human for feeling that way. It's her attempt to hurt and humiliate a woman she's jealous of, for the sake of that boy, that is perhaps the un-feminist action she should be calling herself out for.
In short, I don't think What Girls Are Made Of was the transgressive tome it set out to be. I respect the intent, and can see that it will appeal to some, but it was not for me.
Review copy kindly provided by Walker Books