Sadie Hawkins Sunday Review #15: Imaginary Girls

Sadie Hawkins Sunday Review #15: Imaginary GirlsImaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
Published by Dutton Juvenile on June 14, 2011
Genres: Contemporary, Horror, Magical Realism, Paranormal
Pages: 348
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library

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.

With palpable drama and delicious craft, Nova Ren Suma bursts onto the YA scene with the story that everyone will be talking about.

Recommended by: Jenni of Alluring Reads

First Sentence: “Ruby said I’d never drown—not in deep ocean, not by shipwreck, not even by falling drunk into someone’s bottomless backyard pool.”

Nova Ren Suma has been on my absolutely-must-read list since her debut, but I’ve only just gotten around to reading one of her books. With any new author so beloved in the blogosphere, there’s the fear that the books won’t live up to the hype. Well, Nova Ren Suma did. Imaginary Girls wasn’t what I expected, but it was so much better than that. Suma’s debut is a gloriously dark magical realism mindfuck of a novel that kept me curious through every page.

On the surface, Imaginary Girls is a contemporary mystery, the story of two sisters, relatively calm and placid, like the surface of a reservoir. Underneath those waters, though, is another story, a whole town of issues, buried beneath the waters. Suma plumbs these depths, leaving the reader questioning what is real and what is insanity. Imaginary Girls walks the line between realistic fiction, magical realism and flat-out paranormal in such a way that I’m still not sure precisely how I should categorize it.

Chloe, the narrator, is hardly the heroine of her own story. She lives in the orbit of her older sister, Ruby, like everyone else in their town. Ruby is a sun, and everyone within the pull of her personality moves according to her whims. All the boys want her, all the girls want to be her, and she will never love anyone as much as she loves Chloe. Whatever Ruby wants, Ruby gets; no one can deny her anything, so long as they remain in their little town. Everything else is like our world, but Ruby exerts a pull that is truly out of this world.

When Ruby orders Chloe to swim across the reservoir and back at night, and to dive down at the center to grab a souvenir from Olive, the town underwater, Chloe does it. She believes Ruby’s assertions that she can do it; Ruby will protect her from anything, absolutely anything. As she swims, cold water and fear engulf her, the sounds of the partiers watching her attempt this feat quieting behind her. Just when she feels she can’t swim anymore, she encounters a boat with a dead girl inside, London, a girl from her class.

After this, her father, different from Ruby’s, takes her away with him, away from Ruby’s influence and their alcoholic mother, away from the reservoir, away from the tragedy. Ruby comes for her, though, finally, two years later. When Chloe arrives back in town, she learns something surprising: London’s there and alive. Everyone says she swam across the reservoir that night and that London had gone away to rehab, not that she died. Needless to say, the mystery deepens.

Of course, Chloe could just be crazy, her mind splintering from the tragic events of that night. As in Ian McEwen’s Atonement, this whole story could be some sort of creation of her own mind to explain what happened that night or her delusional dream in the institution where she’s living out her life. In no way do I think Chloe’s a reliable narrator, which adds layers to the already complicated narrative. Nothing is ever certain, which leaves the reader thinking and desperate to unravel the truth.

Suma’s writing style is one that I would not ordinarily love, but it worked perfectly for this tale. There’s a poetic element to it, and a sort of watery uncertainty, as through the truth is a moving target, bobbing on the ripples. The entirety of Imaginary Girls is dreamy and thought-provoking. Also, dark. Suma does not shy away from drug use, sex, violence, or other tough topics.

At its core, Imaginary Girls focuses on the relationship between Ruby and Chloe. The love between the two is powerful, but also a burden. It’s so rare to find YA that focuses on sisterhood over romance, but Suma barely touches on romance. Boys matter so much less to both Ruby and Chloe than sisterhood does.

On a lot of levels, I’m still not sure what went down in this novel and that’s really the beauty of it. If you liked your novels wrapped up in a bow with a moral and clear resolution, Imaginary Girls is not the read for you. However, if you love to open your mind up to new ideas and the puzzle of trying to figure out a mindfuck, go read this ASAP.

Favorite Quote:

“She had two children who, since we had the same father, carried half my blood in their veins, just like Ruby did, the exact same amount, though I didn’t feel connected to them in any real way.
They were like any two people I might pass in the halls at school. One boy, one girl. You see them and wave. Maybe you have on the same color sweater and you’re like, ‘Hey. look. We’re wearing the same color sweater.’ But there’s nothing else to be said beyond that, so you each keep moving. You know you’d barely give it a thought is you never see them again.
This is how I know blood is meaningless; family connections are a lot like old gum—you don’t have to keep chewing. You can always spit it out and stick it under the table. You can walk away.
Ruby was my sister, but she was so much more than that.”

Up Next:

The next Sadie Hawkins Sunday book will be The Summer Garden by Paullina Simons, after which I’ll be finished with that series. Woo! Finishing a series doesn’t happen every day. 🙂 The series as a whole was suggested by Lisa V. Thanks, Lisa!

Want to tell me what to read? For more details, check this post.

13 responses to “Sadie Hawkins Sunday Review #15: Imaginary Girls”

  1. Ellis says:

    I have no idea why I still haven’t read this. Dark + unreliable narrator is right up mu alley and seeing as how I completely trust your judgement after Mistborn, I’m pretty sure I’ll like it.

  2. Amy says:

    This sounds so intriguing and awesome!! I need to read this book I think!!

  3. Kat Balcombe says:

    I almost dismissed this one just based on the cover. I’m definitely going to have to check it out – I find sisters infinitely fascinating!

  4. Renae M. says:

    We see that you like this, and we approve most mightily. Verily, Nova Ren Suma is a master of the mindfuck, wethinks.

  5. Megan K. says:

    This book does play with your mind a LOT. The writing was beautiful, Ruby was beautiful, but damn if it doesn’t mess your thinking up. I’m still having a hard time comprehending what I’d read weeks ago.

  6. Well, you know how hard I love this review from my gushing in our Facebook chat last night but I had to come and leave some love on the actual review. I love how you really captured the feel of the book in your review, I don’t think that’s an easy feat with an author like Suma, but you nailed it. I now love reading this review as much as I loved reading the book!

  7. I am so jazzed that you liked this, Christina! It’s one of my favorite YA novels, but certainly not everyone responds to it.

    I appreciate your pointing out that she barely touches on the romance–it really is unusual for YA that the focus is not on that. It’s the same way in 17 & Gone, which I hope you’ll try sometime.

  8. Amanda says:

    So yes, I do need to read this book ASAP. Unreliable narrators are one of my favorite literary techniques and I am so intrigued by the apparent melding of genres here. I actually don’t think I’ve read a full synopsis of this novel before, but your review makes me certain I’ll at least enjoy the experience of reading this, if not the story itself. I love YA books, but sometimes I feel like by reading so many of them I have certain ideas of what will happen in books. This sounds like it could provide a remedy to YA lethargy. 🙂 Lovely review, Christina!

  9. Rachelia says:

    This is the second time today that I am reading a review of Nova Ren Suma’s books so I’m taking that as a sign that one of her books needs to make its way into my hands soon.

    I love books that sort of play with your head and really make you question everything. It sounds like the author created an intriguing story, coupled with great writing, and it worked, even though you may not have all the answers in the end. Great review!

  10. I hear a lot of mixed things on this book. Glad to see you loved it.

    Also, I’m giggling uncontrollably at what I just put in that form.

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