Published by Dutton Children's Books on June 14th 2011
Genres: Horror, Thriller/Suspense, Young Adult
Pages: 348 (Hardcover)
Good Books • Amazon • Goodreads
Chloe's older sister, Ruby, is the girl everyone looks to and longs for, who can't be captured or caged. When a night with Ruby's friends goes horribly wrong and Chloe discovers the dead body of her classmate London Hayes left floating in the reservoir, Chloe is sent away from town and away from Ruby.
But Ruby will do anything to get her sister back, and when Chloe returns to town two years later, deadly surprises await. As Chloe flirts with the truth that Ruby has hidden deeply away, the fragile line between life and death is redrawn by the complex bonds of sisterhood.
I was completely prepared to go slow with this book and take my time. No self-imposed time limits or expectations, no rushed urgency. It started off well. I picked up my held copy from the library and promptly cracked it open the moment I got home, with the intention of reading the first 100 pages or so before calling it a day.
And what happened?
I read the entire thing in what was, essentially, one sitting.
Because Imaginary Girls is good. Nova Ren Suma’s first foray into the YA world is incredibly unique and nearly perfect. It’s dreamy. It’s haunting. It’s beautiful and sad, and a wonderful little oddity in the YA genre.
You’ll notice that I said that it’s nearly perfect. There are indeed a few caveats that prevent me from giving Imaginary Girls that final star, but they’re ultimately harmless enough that they do the story no great disservice.
Pretty much everything, to be honest. Suma absolutely nails nearly every aspect of this story.
Her writing, for instance, is gorgeous. It’s poetic without bleeding violet. It’s simple without being dull or commonplace. There is such a fluidity to it that you essentially breeze through the pages, and is so well done that the words are almost transparent, leaving nothing but the story and its world for you to effortlessly peer into.
The atmosphere, meanwhile, is eerie and bewitching, so dreamy in quality that you spend a good portion of the novel pondering the validity of it all. What is real? What is not? Suma just pulls you under and keeps you entranced for the entirety of the story. Once the tale has been told, you emerge with a feeling of satisfying bewilderment and hushed appreciation.
The story, while light in its depth and rather simple, is so fresh that it’s hard to believe that it’s a piece of YA fiction. I really haven’t read anything else like it. If you’re expecting action, violence or anything otherwise fast-paced, you’ll probably be bored by this one. It’s a quiet and sleepy tale that gently wanders its way to a bittersweet end. Nothing is really explained, leaving the reader to decide for themselves what it all meant, and yet it works beautifully: not once did I grow bored with Suma’s storytelling or frustrated with her lack of answers.
The setting, too, combines this permeating sense of beauty and dreaminess to wonderful effect. The story’s central location, a drowned town that sleeps at the bottom of a reservoir, is spooky, creative, and positively magical.
The characters are the best part of this book, and stand out with incredible distinctiveness. The two sisters who make up the novel’s heart are both deeply flawed and absolutely infuriating, yet mesmerizing despite it all.
Ruby is spoiled, egocentric and haughty. Her ability to manipulate and use those around her is appalling, and grows even more so as the story progresses and the mystery is unwound. Her controlling and domineering behavior makes her easy to hate. Yet her concern and unconditional love for her sister is touching and palpable, and the actions that she undertakes to protect her sibling, though harmful to others, are ultimately sweet and done with good intentions.
Chloe, meanwhile, is utterly subservient to her big sister, so much so that she essentially lacks any kind of unique personality or will of her own, and is simply an extension of Ruby. This is one of the most disturbing aspects of Imaginary Girls. Her narration is consistently focused on Ruby for one reason or another, whether it be to praise her, heed her advice, or worry about what she may think. Everything and everyone that she encounters has no real meaning for her as an individual. For Chloe, it only has memory or significance if Ruby is connected to it in some way. This complete lack of individualism is frightening, and makes the older sibling an even more appalling figure. What’s truly unsettling, however, is the amount of time that it takes you to realize that Chloe is essentially just as bad as her sister. Her actions and thoughts are eerily similar, and this grows more pronounced as the story progresses. She seems to have no real qualms about Ruby’s oftentimes unethical and dangerous string-pulling. Yet it takes most of the book for you to realize this, and, once you do, your sympathy for her plummets. It’s awful, certainly, but gives her character a fascinating complexity.
Nothing particularly important, but this handful of annoyances are worth mentioning all the same.
Firstly, while the vast majority of Suma’s descriptions are vivid, there are some vague enough to cause confusion. Specifically, those that detail the girls’ house. I reread the various passages that give shape to this location several times, and I’m still wondering how the whole thing was supposed to look. This didn’t have any kind of substantial impact on my reading experience, but enough of the story is spent here that it frustrated me to have an incomplete mental picture of it.
Secondly, Chloe’s attitude towards her sister changes so often that it goes from being realistically complex and conflicted to a matter of grating inconsistency. One scene has her questioning Ruby’s actions and subsequently breaking out of her spell. The next has her once again marveling about how perfect and wonderful she is. It’s exceedingly frustrating, as it leaves you unclear for some time as to what, exactly, Chloe’s feelings toward her sister are. Is she disillusioned? Still enthralled? Afraid? Accepting? It’s difficult to comprehend such an important part of Chloe’s psyche, and because the relationship between the girls is the driving force behind the story, this lack of clarity is problematic.
Finally, we have the faulty relationship between Chloe and Owen, which is undoubtedly the worst part of the book. It simply feels completely unnecessary, primarily because it doesn’t go anywhere at all. Very little happens between the two of them, with the exception of an utterly pointless and exceedingly uncomfortable sexual encounter. It would have been prudent, I think, if Suma had left this particular storyline out altogether, as it really didn’t add anything to either the narrative or the characters. What, then, was the point of it?
Imaginary Girls is not a book for everyone. Some will love it. Some will hate it. It certainly is unique, however, and that alone makes it worth your time. Regardless of any preconceived notions that you may have, I recommend that you give it a try. You may just find yourself enthralled. And, unlike our protagonist, that’s undoubtedly a good thing.