September Girls by Bennett Madison
[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
September Girls, by Bennett Madison was nominated for a 2014 Andre Norton Award for best YA fiction (it didn’t win; Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine did). I see why September Girls was nominated. It’s beautifully written, a sad and sweet story about love, dysfunctional families, and growing up. Oh, and mermaids.
According to Goodreads, the book is also controversial, with some readers embracing it as a surgically precise critique of patriarchy, and others decrying it as sexist. Just so you know, I’m in the first camp and this review is going to approach the book with that assumption.
Also, just so you know… this book, published by Harper Teen, has rough language including regular use of the f-word (not feminism; the other f-word); male characters routinely use slang for women’s anatomy to insult each other; the male main character is blunt and unsentimental in much of his thinking about sex and women. Parents whose teenagers might be reading this book would do well to read it themselves, so that they can discuss some of the themes and tropes that unfold.
Seventeen-year-old Sam is the younger of two brothers being raised by a hapless dad, after their mother has decamped for something called Women’s Land. We never know if Women’s Land is a real place. It seems unlikely, since before she left, Mom was addicted to Farmville on Facebook. Dad has quit his job without notice and announces he is going to take Sam and his college-age brother Jeff to the beach, Nag’s Head in North Carolina, for the summer — not just a vacation, for the entire summer. Sam will leave his best friend and all his routines.
The beach town throngs with tourists and many of them are girls, but Sam also notices that there are Girls, a different tribe. They are beautiful, even if he can’t quite describe why; they are almost feral, living in clusters without parents, working at the tourist restaurants or as hotel and vacation rental maids. They all have first names only, and strange ones; DeeDee is probably the most normal. DeeDee’s roommates include Olay and Activia. Sam can’t help but notice the Girls, but something even more eerie happens; the Girls notice him.
On their first night on the beach, Sam and his brother Jeff go for a walk. They see a young woman struggling in the waves. She is naked and blond (all of the Girls seem to be blond). Before the boys can do anything, she crawls out of the surf and up the beach. Sam almost wonders if this is some kind of a dream. Soon he meets Kristle at a tourist restaurant, and shortly after that DeeDee.
Sam’s first person narrative is interspersed with a first-person-plural narrator; the Girls, who share bits of their experience. When they turn sixteen, they are cast out onto the shore by their father. They are always beautiful. They have forgotten many things. They have no names:
We come here without our names. There are names that they call us. But those are not our names.
The names they call us are not hard to guess. Comehere, Wheresmyfood, Trysmilingsometime, and Suckonthis are four common ones but the list goes predictably on from there and only gets uglier…
…We name ourselves after shampoos and perfumes and dishwasher detergents. We do have one rule; no one is allowed to call herself L’Oreal anymore. We kept getting into fights over who could be L’Oreal, so a rule was established. We’ve since had a few Pantenes but not enough to cause problems.
In much the same way, when the Girls come from the waves they are not fully shaped, in some sense. They only become “finished” or complete under the male gaze. They cannot go back into the water because they have forgotten how to swim, and they cannot leave the beach. This punishment was set down by their father, the Endlessness, for reasons they do not know, although there are clues:
We remember our mother, but only a little. We remember that she was beautiful and patient. We remember that we loved her. We were told that she was a whore, although we can’t remember who told us that, and we often find ourselves arguing over the true definition of whore.
To punish a mother, you punish her daughters. Every king in history has known this rinky-dink little trick. It doesn’t matter if her daughters are your daughters too.
To break the curse, a Girl needs to have sex with a virgin boy before she turns twenty-one, or she will die.
This should work out well for Sam, because Jeff’s Priority One is “This summer we’re going to get you laid, bro. It’ll do you some good.” Still, this is a love story and a story about adulthood, not a teenage sex fantasy. Sam has made plenty of trenchant, insightful comments about phrases like “manning up,” and “being a man,” and he is pretty sure no one knows what those words mean. He is attracted to DeeDee, and to Kristle, who aggressively pursues him sexually even though she is dating Jeff, but the relationship with DeeDee begins to change, and Sam begins to change too.
September Girls is not just about a siren who falls in love or a boy who breaks a curse (if, in fact, the curse even can be broken). It’s a story about summer, and a story about families. Sam, Jeff and their father are like three planets spinning in separate orbits around the sun of the unspoken; the missing mother. Morning is a sad routine of trying to watch The Price is Right, until Sam takes to walking down the beach each morning. One of the most grimly funny, and tragic, passages in the book comes one evening when the family is playing Scrabble in their rundown beach cottage:
There was a hole in the screen door and the mosquitos were buzzing everywhere, and it was too hot because the air conditioner only worked a little bit and that horrible woman on CNN would not shut up about some mother in Ohio who had murdered her entire family with a ballpoint pen. I asked Dad to turn it off but he said he “liked the background noise,” so I went out on the porch just to get away from the blue Paper Mate that was beckoning enticingly from the kitchen counter.
Madison could have stayed with scenes like that and written a swell little literary book that mocked his characters and stayed safely in the shallows. He didn’t. He is emotionally honest, even when the honesty is unattractive. Like all real fairy tales, nothing is as simple or easy as people want to make it. The story of Sam’s mother could be Bad Mom/Good Mom, but he chooses to make it something more. The story of the Girls could be simply one of a rescue by men; or a tragedy, as men are betrayed by deceitful sirens, but it is neither.
Madison also captures summer perfectly here, the sameness, the loss of hours in lazy sameness, Fourth of July as a marker for where they are in the long span of sandy, salty summer days. Sam walks on the beach a lot. It’s monotonous, but that’s how it should be. The trade-off is a lack of action; here’s a mini-spoiler-alert, no one releases the Kraken in this book. Except for a hurricane, the action is psychological.
I think people who are troubled by September Girls confuse the story with the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.” This is not a six-songs-and-a-happy-ending story. Madison explores what it might really be like to be torn from your home and hurled into an alien environment; where your voice, your appearance and your name are all dictated to you by others. And he explores what it’s like to grow up male in today’s society, where the fixation on sexual entitlement and the constant belittlement of women begin to look a little, well, desperate. Even the title is a clue; the Girls aren’t Summer Girls, there as part of male fantasy; they are closer to their true selves in September, when the male tourists leave and it is only them, the beach and the waves.
September Girls is a strong book that defies expectations. I was caught up in it. The combination of strangeness, satire, keen observation and lyrical prose reminded me of one of my favorite writers, Karen Russell. I am in a strange position of recommending it highly knowing that many smart, insightful people who read it will be offended, or even worse, bored. If that happens, let’s go walk on the beach and talk about it.
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