What Girls are Made Of - Elana K. Arnold

When Nina Faye was fourteen, her mother told her there was no such thing as unconditional love. Nina believed her. Now Nina is sixteen. And she'll do anything for the boy she loves, just to prove she's worthy of him. But when he breaks up with her, Nina is lost. What is she if not a girlfriend? What is she made of?

Broken-hearted, Nina tries to figure out what the conditions of love are. She's been volunteering at a high-kill animal shelter where she realizes that for dogs waiting to be adopted, love comes only to those with youth, symmetry, and quietness. She also ruminates on the strange, dark time her mother took her to Italy to see statues of saints who endured unspeakable torture because of their unquestioning devotion to the divine. Is this what love is?

Until now, I didn't realize how destructive the old poem was: "Sugar and spice and everything nice; that's what little girls are made of." But then I read this novel, and I saw Elana Arnold's author note:
Hearing this nursery rhyme when I was a little girl, I remember feeling smug. I was a girl, and therefore I was made of the good stuff; boys, on the other hand, were made of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails--slimy, icky, dismembered, even. Now, though, I read it differently. 
...I now see that the stuff of girls is meant to be consumed--sugar and spice and everything nice--yummy sweet treats that melt in your mouth. 
And it reads to me now as a warning rather than as an assessment. It's an imperative: to be a girl, one must be sweet and delicious.
I had the privilege of speaking with Arnold at the latest NCTE (2016) and we had a chance to discuss some of the many assumptions about female protagonists, namely the expectation of masculinized strength and bad-assery that is expected in order for a female character to be seen as feminist or "strong." What about the characters who are not sugar and spice? Or those who are actually weak in some ways? Are they not worthy of being seen as great female characters as well, for some reason?

Nina is not a typical "strong" female character, though she is well rounded and is put through a variety of trials and tribulations. She uses short stories that weave together seemingly disconnected subjects in an effort to untangle the meanings of life and love and sex. She encounters compassionate nurses at Planned Parenthood who help her navigate pregnancy, abortion, birth control, and the emotional landscape involved therein. She has to deal with the consequences of her actions after bullying a girl the year prior to the events of the novel. And she is also trying to figure out her own mother, who is herself a complicated individual, with a rather tragic past.

As with all of Arnold's books, the action is swift and the novel focuses mostly on characterization and setting rather than a complex plot (though that is not to say the plot isn't well-constructed). Nina is certainly an intriguing character, though as noted, she is not necessarily what some would call "strong" in the expected sense. I think there is a lot to think about here and I hope this book gets the critical and popular attention it deserves.

Highly Recommended

(NOTE: This review is from an Advance Reading Copy - Out April 2017)


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