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Review: American Girls by Alison Umminger

March 29, 2016

As a member of the Sweet Sixteeners (a group of writers who are all debuting in 2016), I had the pleasure of receiving an Advanced Release Copy (ARC) of AMERICAN GIRLS by Alison Umminger via snail mail. I read this book in two sittings,  thoroughly enjoying this dark coming-of-age novel as it explored complicated relationships, familial bonds, and the need to fit in (and the consequences of feeling like one doesn’t).

AMERICAN GIRLS features Anna, a fifteen year-old girl who steals her stepmother’s credit card to buy a plane ticket to L.A., home to her half-sister Delia, glamorous celebrities. . . and far away from her divorced parents and their respective mates. While she is brooding and a little whiny at times, I understood Anna and her need for escape; and the catalyst of the trip to Hollywood provides the perfect setting for her to grow up.

Once in Hollywood and living with the gorgeous Delia, Anna is exposed to the celebrity life. It has its glamour, but it is also gritty and lonely, and the novel is genius in gradually exposing it as such. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but a billboard as a framing device as Anna arrives in and leaves L.A. was particularly effective).

Delia’s ex-boyfriend, Roger, lurks along the edges of her life; and Anna has a front row ticket to that dysfunctional relationship. She can’t understand why Delia would sacrifice her new relationship with the lovable and kind Dex, who clearly adores her. As a reader, it’s hard to see Delia’s seemingly perfect life be exposed for what it is, because we like Delia despite her deep flaws.

While tagging along to Roger’s set (where Delia is the star), Roger gives Anna a project – learn about the Manson girls, those girls who wanted to belong so badly that they were willing to participate in something evil. The lessons Anna gleans from her research fascinate her and terrify her, making her lock Delia’s door at night when her sister is away and worry that she sees some of herself in the Manson girls. Like them, all she wants is a place to land.

Umminger’s AMERICAN GIRLS is a beautifully-written, poignant coming-of-age novel that is dark but not too dark, taking us along with Anna as she grows up during one important summer. It has everything – fast pacing, believable characters and a compelling storyline made particularly interesting by the Hollywood backdrop. I hope this book is a smash, because it deserves it – I enjoyed being in Anna’s head and taking the journey with her.

As a note, as I turned the pages of the ARC, I noted that those who read before me (the ARC was exchanged among the Sweet Sixteeners, forwarded like a chain letter to whomever had signed up for it), I noted that many passages had been highlighted or annotated. Clearly, I was not the only one to appreciate the beauty of certain passages and the wisdom of Anna’s observations (and how they evolve over the course of the novel).

Also, and technically unrelated to this review – after reading AMERICAN GIRLS, I looked up Alison (ah, the powers of Internet stalking) and found that she and I live less than an hour apart, and before that, we lived in the same town of Arlington, Virginia. Small world.

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