Book Review: American Girls, Alison Umminger (2016)

June 29th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Explores some interesting ideas, but the story never really clicked for me.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to rape.)

Backstage, Olivia Taylor had removed her moon boots and was curled cat-like against Karl Marx. He rubbed his hand up her leg, almost into her crotch, and she opened a mirror and lined her lips silver-blue while he talked.

“It’s all waste,” he said, his accent as perfectly beautiful as it sounded in the interviews I’d watched. “Waste and filth. Even these women, these perfect creatures.”

These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. —Charles Manson

As a teenager, I devoured true crime books. They were a guilty pleasure, if only because some of the adults around me made me feel like a borderline psychopath for my choice of reading materials. (JEEZ UNCLE GARY, MAYBE I WANT TO BE A FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGIST WHEN I GROW UP! DID YOU EVER THINK OF THAT?) My favorite sub-genre was cults, hands down; there was something about the mix of sociopathy and religion that I found especially compelling. In college, I was lucky enough to talk my way into a sociology project on Jonestown (though I struck out when trying to do something similar for an honors course called “The Psychology of Health & Wellness.” You can’t have wellness without sickness, I argued. Two sides of the same coin! Eventually the prof was forced to pick my topic for me: hardiness. Ugh. I still nailed it.)

So it’s an understatement to say that I was looking forward to Alison Umminger’s American Girls – one of two Manson-inspired books coming out in June. (The other? The Girls by Emma Cline, which I cannot recommend highly enough.) I’ve been humming the Tom Petty tune for going on a month now.

Alas, American Girls isn’t quite what I’d hoped for. It introduces some intriguing ideas –

about success, fame, and the never-ending hustle of making it/keeping it; the dehumanization, objectification, and exploitation of celebrities, especially female ones, as well as girls and women in general; the way the Hollywood machine – at times a stand-in for Western culture – grinds people down; beauty, popularity, sexuality, family, self-identity, religion, guilt, bullying, the capacity for human cruelty – you name it

– yet they mostly remain a series of random, jumbled thoughts, lacking in a cohesive commentary. I expected that Anna’s life experiences would be drawn in parallel to those of the Manson Girls, and they sometimes are; but often the links are tenuous and/or only explored in a superficial way.

Anna wonders how regular girls, girls like herself and her sister Delia, girls who maybe had a bad home life, but nothing over-the-top traumatic, could be capable of such violence and depravity. And the answer’s right there: in front of her, all around her, in the very culture she eats, breathes, lives. Umminger hints at and flirts with and dances around it, yet never quite looks beyond the individuals to the structures in which they operate.

Hollywood – and Western culture more generally – chews young women up and spits them out: it (we) tells them that they’re frigid if they don’t put out, and sluts if they do. We teach them to value their beauty above all else; and then we mock them for their vanity. Sexuality is a woman’s most powerful tool, but women who use it to get ahead? They’re sluts, gold diggers, and talentless whores.

Men like Manson eagerly scoop up these discarded, forgotten, abandoned girls. Girls who are poor, neglected, and abused. Girls for whom there ought to be some other, kinder, gentler social safety net. He tosses them a scrap of attention here and an off-handed compliment there and is rewarded with their undying loyalty. They are your garden-variety, textbook-case predators, different only in the scope and salaciousness of their crimes. Whereas Jim Jones promised his (predominantly black) flock a racially diverse utopia, Manson offered these castaways the love and validation they craved.

It’s easy to see a connection between Anna’s home life and those of the Manson Girls. Her mom’s on her third marriage – this time to a woman – and (after much trying) Cora and Lynette have a shiny new son named Birch. With varying degrees of absent fathers, Anna and Delia have been left behind in the shuffle. Desperate to impress, Anna started cyberbullying a classmate at her best friend Doon’s behest. Anna took the fall – it was her phone from which the texts were sent – and yet Doon isn’t even acting grateful. Anna feels plain and unloved and alone.

So she steals Lynette’s credit card and runs off to Los Angeles to stay with her older sister Delia. Mom, who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, decides that Anna should stay the summer: lacking in the breast cancer gene, she has identified Anna as the carcinogen in her life:

“What about me? Can I come back?”

“Anna,” she said, and it was her no-nonsense voice all of a sudden. “I just—we don’t know how cancer works. I don’t know what caused this. I don’t know what would make it come back or make it spread, but I do know that I can’t have any more stress in my life than I already have.”

This comes as no surprised to Delia, who was deemed responsible for Cora’s mid-life lesbianism and the resulting dissolution of her marriage:

“So I called Cora about two weeks after it [Delia’s first movie, a Japanese horror flick called St. Succubus] came out, to see if she and your dad had watched it, and you know what she says to me?” I shook my head. My sister stopped looking at the ceiling and stared me dead in the face. “She says, ‘I can’t have sex since I saw that movie. It’s disgusting and it’s made me realize that sex with men is violent and predatory. I’m not sure that I can ever have sex with any man again.’”

So…yeah. Mom’s pretty awful, and under these circumstances it’s hardly a surprise that Anna would act out. Yet instead of exploring how such treatment – and worse, in many of the girls’ cases – makes girls (and boys!) vulnerable targets for predators, Anna mostly just skirts around the issue. She never quite adopts the bigger-picture perspective. It’s the girls, the friends they chose, the bad choices they made. And yes, it is this; but it’s also so much more. It’s a society that allows girls to fall through the cracks – and then blames the girls instead of the cracks.

In addition to missing the point, sometimes Anna’s conclusions are downright harmful, e.g.: “For the first time in my life I was glad that I didn’t look like that, that I wasn’t the kind of pretty that turned a girl into prey.” Because only pretty girls are raped? Come on with that nonsense!

If it wasn’t already obvious, Anna isn’t a particularly likable narrator. While it’s true that she has some awful things done to her, she also behaves terribly towards others. There is some self-discovery by story’s end (especially in regards to the bullying), but not nearly enough. Many of the faults she finds in others are also evident in Anna herself: she’s self-absorbed and narcissistic, completely ungrateful to her sister for taking her in for the summer, and constantly butts in on things that are none of her business.

Bottom line: I think you’ll be more likely to enjoy American Girls if you want a coming of age story; less so if you’re in it for the Manson connection. It’s entertaining enough – I read it in most of a day – though not without some flaws. Anna’s thoughts often have a stream-of-consciousness feel, and perhaps the story just isn’t meant to have the degree of cultural criticism or resolution I anticipated.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Anna’s mother Cora is a serial monogamist. She and her sister Delia (her senior by eleven years) have different fathers. Delia’s father is MIA, while Anna’s dad is present, but increasingly distant since he began dating his girlfriend (and Anna’s soon-to-be stepmom) Cynthia. Near the end of their marriage, Cora came out as a lesbian – which she blamed on trauma from watching Delia consume a penis in her low-budget horror movie. She’s now married to a woman named Lynette, and they have a son named Birch. Cora gave birth to him, after several years of fertility problems. While with Anna’s dad, she suffered a miscarriage that sent her spiraling into depression. Cora has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Delia’s boyfriend Dex, a screenwriter, is biracial (black and white). Delia’s ex, Roger, hires Anna to research the Manson Family for a movie he’s working on. Dex prods Anna to explore the racial aspects of the murders.

Olivia Taylor is half Japanese on her father’s side. When, as a teenager, she tried to reunite with him after a ten-year+ absence, he propositioned her. Olivia is a hoarder, and her younger brother Jeremy is in AA. He enrolled after he hit a pedestrian with his car.

Anna sent a classmate, Paige Parker, bullying texts to impress her best friend Doon. Paige is pretty, popular – and a self-harmer. Paige’s mom blamed the harassment for her daughter’s cutting.

Animal-friendly elements: Nope. Roger is (maybe?) a vegetarian or vegan, but he’s also a douchenozzle rape apologist who defends Roman Polanski. While in LA, MC Anna dines out at veg restaurants on several occasions, complaining all the while about how gross the food is.


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