Before we get going, I should explain that if I’m trying to find a book to read by online reviews, I look almost entirely at the negative ones. Most books have only a few 1- and 2-star reviews, so usually I read all of them, and some of the more popular 3-star reviews. Maybe a couple 4-stars. (I mean on Amazon and GoodReads.) That’s because the majority of five-star reviews in my experience are mostly gushing, don’t discuss the reasons why the reviewer felt that way except in terms so abstract as to be useless, etc. Sure, some low-star reviews are like that. But a lot of them take the time to point out every little itch and then about half are in between. And I find it more sueful to hear what people hated about a book when deciding if I want to buy it. Although unless a book has almost nothing over 2 stars, I don’t actually pay much attention to reviews for decision-making anyway. I just enjoy reading them for their own sake.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with Imaginary Girls. I don’t usually post reviews on this blog, partially because my taste is so weird, and partially because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea of what this blog is about. I primarily enjoy writing about the theoretical aspects for speculative fiction, and as with this reviews, occasionally about YA. There are plenty of awesome review blogs out there, and I’m not interested in competing with them. I’m not capable of competing with them; my goals in writing a review are different than theirs. The reason I’m writing this review, besides that fact that Nova Ren Suma is an awesome writer and I loved this book, is because after I finished I was surfing reviews on Goodreads, and I saw a review, not surprising, but quite illustrating of a topic that’s been percolating and/or fermenting in my mind for awhile.
As the title says, it’s the tension between reader interpretation and authorial intent. By reader interpretation, I means the feelings and insights and the rewarded or frustrated expectations that a reader takes away from a story. And there’s a unique interpretation for each reader. I won’t debate the issue of validity here. It’s much too heated and ambiguous a discussion for me to get side-tracked on here.
So, instead, let’s begin with my review. The review I mention earlier had a different reader interpretation of Ruby than I did. She hated her. So did I. But whereas the other review saw this as a flaw, I saw it as the point. I don’t know Nove Ren Suma enough to make a firm claim to her intent. To an extent, it doesn’t matter. half the point of the novel seems to be to provide ambiguity. I admit that I am going to go a bit into spoilers. That’s where my goals in a review differ slightly from traditional reviews. Ruby is not a nice person. She’s not a mean person either. She’s more just amoral. What matters to her is what she wants, not what’s right or wrong. And the book does a great job of taking that, and still making her not a complete monster. When people have always done everything you wanted, it’s not that strange to take it for granted. Ruby holds the whole town under her spell. Her character isn’t cruel, just a bit purposefully oblivious.
And that’s part of what makes the book as good as it is. Ruby’s complete narcissism plays so beautifully into the magical realist elements of the story. It’s Chloe’s complete belief in her sister that allows all the fantastic events in the story to seem believable. London’s revival is perhaps the most unambiguous magical element. But for the rest of it, when you finally have a break from the consensus reality that Ruby holds over the town, when Chloe and London and their friends pass the boundary line and start to say all sorts of awful things about Ruby, there’s a moment where you realize that maybe Chloe isn’t the most reliable of narrators. Is she so under Ruby’s spell that she never saw these cracks? That’s one interpretation. Or there’s the idea of the boundary of Ruby’s power. There’s enough wiggle room to take either route. Or perhaps even the boundary is real, in the sense that Ruby doesn’t have enough energy to control things outside of town for mundane reasons involving time and physical stamina. The moments near the end of the second third of the book, where Chloe sees Ruby for once tired, not perfect suggest that this too is a possibility. This tension between various possibilities is part of what makes magical realism, real-world superstition, and a magician’s tricks so bittersweet.
Chloe has a few other moments of cognitive dissonance, as well. And in general she takes the route of doubling down on her faith in Ruby. Totally believable, to me. All fiction requires suspension of disbelief. Even the real world does. And Ruby has, evidenced by little hints throughout the story, taken a great deal of time to set up her perfect little world, or at least the image of it in Chloe’s eyes. When you have the scene at the beginning of the book, at the reservoir, and everyone seems under Ruby’s spell, there’s another interpretation to consider: perhaps many people are under Ruby’s spell–temporarily, or patchily, or entirely–but there’s also an aspect of rubber-necking and denial that could be in play. Some people absolutely see through manipulation and tricks. But they still love to see the master work. Or they want to be part of the legend, even though they know the legend is a fraud. It’s easy to forget that with humans, sometimes appearances can be more important than reality. You see it in rich-people take-down stories all the time. The cracks being exposed, the polite but purposeful ignorance. The winks that say “I saw saw that” or “we all know the truth but it’s more useful for us to pretend we don’t”.
But it’s common theme that the people most capable of casting these sorts of spells are also not the nicest of people. They understand manipulation. They know how to play groups off against each other, how to get someone to overlook the many little problems in the face of the one big wonder. And they learned those things for a reason. We don’t really get to learn Ruby’s reason. They had family troubles, and their mom was not the most perfect. Perhaps some things happened in the past we didn’t get told about. But I know people like Ruby, I’ve seen how they construct their worlds, paper over the cracks, and the portrayal of that in Imaginary Girls is very well done. It wouldn’t be the book it is if Ruby wasn’t so selfish and controlling. The tragedy of the book, the great and terrible beauty of it, is that even if the magic is real, even if Ruby did what she did, and Chloe and then London were brought back from the dead, even if she truly loved her sister in her own way, Chloe is still, for the foreseeable future lost in the spell of someone who’s dead and gone. (Or is she?!) It doesn’t even matter if things were really how Chloe saw them, because Ruby has screwed her up just the same.
Nova Ren Suma has done a beautiful job encapsulating what it’s like being a teenager, looking up to someone–loving someone, even–looking past their flaws. Even though I’ve never lived by a reservoir, or had the family situation Ruby and Chloe had, or whatever, this book definitely resonates with me, and reminds me of things that happened when I was younger, and most of all it created a great mystery that was fun to investigate, even if it was impossible to figure out the right answer. And she did it with brilliant prose and fascinating characters. And it’s hard to ask more from a book.