Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
Published: 2011, Dutton Books
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal
Format: Hardcover, 348 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
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When something big happens, you don't immediately point the finger at one person. A bridge collapses, and maybe that's what people call an act of God, not of the little girl in the backseat of a passing car wishing something would happen to keep her from having to stay the weekend with her creepy uncle. A plane loses its propellers and crash-lands on water, and no one blames the guy sitting in 13B who can't get a date and wants to die over it and doesn't care if he takes the whole damn plane with him.
No human being could take credit for changing fate.
Except for Ruby.
Half sisters Chloe and Ruby live in a small New York town surrounded by a reservoir that supplies water to the Hudson Valley and New York City. The reservoir has always been a source of fascination for the children of this town, and Ruby has filled Chloe's head with fanciful stories about the towns the reservoir waters rose to replace a century ago, especially the town of Olive. When Ruby asks Chloe to swim across the reservoir one night and bring back a souvenir from Olive, Chloe thinks only of making Ruby proud and impressing their friends.
Before Chloe gets halfway across the reservoir, before she can even contemplate diving down, she finds the body of fellow classmate London Hayes. Chloe cannot cope with what she witnessed and is sent away to Pennsylvania to live with her father and his family. But Ruby will not allow herself and Chloe to be separated for very long, and two years later she comes and takes Chloe back to their hometown.
Chloe cannot figure out how or why, but things seem strange in her hometown. Little has changed since that fateful night she discovered London's body. And now London herself is alive and walking around and no one seems the least bit concerned. The one thing Chloe does know is that everything somehow relates back to Ruby, as it always has and always will.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Imaginary Girls is pretty much perfect. Nova Ren Suma is clearly a talented writer, and her dreamy, poetic description imbued a sense of wonder in me as the reader. Her writing works with small-town life tropes and examines the bonds of sisterhood in new ways. By reading even a few pages of her work, readers can easily find themselves walking along the rocks that border the reservoir, starting into its dark, murky depths. We're there when Ruby sends off her red messaged balloons and when London and Chloe take a turn on the road away from their town.
Chloe's narration also has a dreamlike quality about it, best represented through her internal thoughts. There's always been something a little off about their town, about Ruby, but it's not until Chloe has left her town and returns to it later that she begins to notice it all. In a way, reading through Chloe's description is like seeing through water. Parts of what we as readers understand is crystal clear, while other parts are more translucent. Reality and Chloe's own understanding of things are never one and same, but the boundaries between the two are fluid.
There are more than a few indefinable aspects about this novel. Can it be defined as a contemporary with a supernatural twist? Flat-out paranormal? Magical realism? It's all of those, and then some. A good book, however, is about more than beautiful writing, and while Suma's prose is enchanting, unfortunately I'm not sure I can say the same about the rest of the novel.
Imaginary Girls is ultimately all about Ruby. Ruby's relationship with Chloe. Her wants. Her desires. Outside of Ruby, Chloe has very few defining traits. While I think I can understand Suma's decision in choosing Chloe to narrate, that only slightly lessened my aggravation. From a young age, Chloe has learned that her older half-sister Ruby is the only person she can rely on. Both of their fathers are completely out of the picture. Their mother is an alcoholic. And so Chloe learns to rely on Ruby and to do all that she asks. I get it, but still. Chloe is a completely passive character, putty in Ruby's calculating hands. Any small amount of agency she had while living with her father is gone nearly the second she and Ruby return to their hometown.
Suma presents an interesting perspective on the bonds of sisterhood, but not a very likeable one. And while I don't need my characters to be likeable necessarily, I need some understanding of why they act the way they do. Chloe's passivity is explained, but so many other aspects that make up their relationship never are. What, exactly, is so compelling about Ruby? What is this hold that she seems to have on everyone? When she returns Chloe to their hometown, Ruby is twenty-one, works part-time at a gas station, hangs out with high school students, and has no plans to do anything with her life. And somehow she manages to be revered at every turn. I am more than willing to suspend my disbelief while reading, but I need at least a little bit of a reason to do so. Ruby gave me none.
I ultimately ended Imaginary Girls feeling a bit dissatisfied. The unreliable narration and hints of supernatural seemed to suggest some big revelation by the end. But the ending, while well done, is not very unexpected.
My experience reading Imaginary Girls wasn't all bad, however. I was invested in the story while reading it and the story stayed with me once I closed the book. What Imaginary Girls has shown me is that Suma has a lot of potential — potential that will hopefully be better channeled in future works. This is worth reading for the beautiful prose, but readers shouldn't expect to find any answers to their questions here.
Rating: 2.5 stars