BWW Review: AMERICAN GIRLS by Alison Umminger
"I thought about the Manson family, driving around with blood on their hands, and how in Hollywood, you couldn't tell the killers from the actors. If there was a stranger place on earth, I didn't know where."
~Anna, AMERICAN GIRLS
I like books that deal with Hollywood and celebrities, but they so often only deal with the glitzy side of life. AMERICAN GIRLS digs in and looks at the Hollywood's underbelly. Not everyone can be rich and famous, a household name across the country. Many actors are struggling to survive and get by and can barely make the B-List or even the C-List. They'll take any job they can, even if it's embarrassing or shameful. They'll do things they're not proud of. They'll turn into people they hate. AMERICAN GIRLS looks at all this and more, while at the same time twisting in history about Charles Manson and the Manson Girls, as well as the plight of growing up in an uncertain world.
Anna hates her life. Her mom and her mom's wife don't care about her now that there's a new baby in their life. Her father and her father's fiance also don't spend a lot of time with her. Her mother can be really nasty and seems to regret Anna's very existence. Sick of her life, Anna "borrows" her mother's wife's credit card and runs away to L.A. where her sister lives. But even life in L.A. isn't everything she's dreamed of. Her sister does crazy things to make it in Hollywood, from practically starving herself to being friendlier than she should with an ex-boyfriend. Anna has to work in order to pay back the money she took, as well as pay for a flight home at the end of summer. For one project, she has to read everything she can about the Manson Girls in order to get into their mindset so her sister can excel in a movie role. Reading such horror stories makes her scared that someone might be stalking her sister....but also scared that she can see parallels between herself and some of the Girls. Anna's experiences in L.A. change her and begin formulating her as the adult she will soon become.
This book takes a close look at family relationships. Anna goes through a lot at home, and her mother isn't the best in the world. This will resonate with a lot of teens, ones who might imagine running away and going someplace better. It will also show them that "better" is relative and not always all that it's cracked up to be. Even if you have a shitty homelife, there are good elements as well, ones worth remembering. Your family might be messed up, but they're trying, and you have to try, too. Everything can't be about you all the time. There are so many messages just in the structure of Anna's homelife. You can see where she's coming from, but you can also see where other family members are coming from as well. The lines of life aren't black and white. There isn't a 100% "right" or "wrong" answer.
It was also refreshing to read a teen contemporary where romance isn't the focus of the novel. There's a little bit, yes, but it's not the focus, and when it happens, it's very blink-and-you-miss-it. It's not a forever romance, just a nice summer memory. It's about family, about discovering your identity and facing up to the things you've done. It's about life. In that way the book is very ordinary, even though it's set against the extreme lifestyle of Hollywood wannabe starlets.
The themes in AMERICAN GIRLS are heavier than they appear at first sight, and the book is one that you need to read slowly over multiple sittings in order to think about the complexity of Anna's discoveries. It's not a one-day beach read, but it's definitely a book for the summer!
AMERICAN GIRLS by Alison Umminger was published on June 7, 2016 by Flatiron Books / Macmillan.