Dreams of Significant Girls, by Christina Garcia
Simon & Schuster, 2011. (currently available)
Genre: Historical Fiction, Realism
Face Value: Well it’s certainly pretty to look at, and I wasn’t embarrassed to read it on a train. And I do appreciate that the three girls on the cover are pictured with their full bodies intact, and I like that their backs are turned so we get silhouettes rather than portraits. But I would argue that these three girls have very little to do with the three girls we read about in the story. For one, they all read as white, even though Vivien is Cuban and Shirin is Iranian. And they’re all very thin, when Vivien is self-described as zaftig throughout the book. Plus, as Julie at That Klickitat pointed out, the clothing they’re wearing looks a lot more 2011 than 1971.
Does it Break the Slate? Absolutely. Though it’s not an explicitly feminist narrative, the authenticity of the voices of these three girls, the complexity of the friendship that grows between them and the way they relate to their immediate and larger surroundings are undeniably slatebreaking in nature. Any book that thoughtfully addresses the complexities of female friendships is usually worth a read for me. We think a lot on this site about the way young women are constructed on the page, and the way that relationships between women are represented. The overwhelming dynamism, believability and realism of the way these three women and their connection to one another is written makes this story one to watch for.
Who would we give it to? Good question. In my reviews so far this is the hardest book to classify in this category. But I think it will appeal to fans of contemporary & historical realism, as long as they aren’t intent on having great romance in the story.
Review: It’s 1971, and Vivien (Cuban Jewish New Yorker) Ingrid (first generation German Canadian) and Shirin (Iranian from a powerful family) are placed together as roommates at a summer boarding school in Switzerland. None of them are that happy about it, which always seems to be the case in these stories. Because everything about that sounds amazing to me, I always find that particular plotline to be implausible in boarding school narratives like these, but, since that has no real relevance to this review, I’ll let it go. Anyway, the girls are all very different – Vivien is a bookish, cheerful aspiring chef, Shirin is a brilliant, socially reserved and somewhat spoiled princess and Ingrid is an artistic, sexually adventurous rebel. They struggle to find common ground, but over the course of three summers and some drastic life changes in the meantime they develop a close, significant friendship.
You guys, this is not your typical boarding school story. Yeah, it has a lot of the tropes you love & expect (exciting European location, horseback riding etc., new friends from different cultural backgrounds coming together and finding meaningful friendships) but it’s very maturely written, and there’s a lot of room for tension and distress and complexity between the girls, even as they become deeply important to each other. The summers do not always end on a point of resolution and the moments when the girls come back together and reconnect are remarkably unsentimental. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants this is not.
That said, the way the friendships developed and strengthened over the years surprised me, and I really enjoyed it. The voice of each character was so specifically written that the switches back and forth between narrators are seamless and we really see each girl grow up and come into her own. I also believed the relationship between the girls as that developed, and felt that it authentically moved in sync with their individual moments of growth. I was also impressed with the way each girl’s curiosity about sex and explorations of sex and boys and dating was presented. There are some stupid mistakes presented but no slut shaming here.
The way this story is positioned within it’s historical context was not only beautifully crafted but really unique. Contemporary politics figure into the background fabric of the story (Watergate, Castro, the Iranian revolution) but a sense of the recent history is deeply present as well. World War II, only twenty-five years earlier still has a deep impact on the characters, their experience in Europe and their familial experience. Vivien’s father is a Holocaust survivor and Ingrid’s father was a Nazi soldier as a very young man who has to come to terms with the things that he did. The historical context makes for compelling background information that roots this book firmly within its time. I never had a moment of thinking our girls might pull out their cell phones or send one another an email. In fact, the codas to each chapter in which we see letters traveling across tremendous distance and time adds a lot to the story.
One aspect of this book gave me pause when I started to think about it more deeply to write this review, and that’s the question of class as it is addressed by the narrative. If you couldn’t tell by the fact that this book takes place at a summer boarding school in Switzerland, all of the characters come from serious privilege. This is fine, but what struck me as odd was the way this was barely addressed, as though it was the expectation, not just for the characters, but for the reader. None of the three have to confront their privilege in a meaningful way. As I write this, it occurs to me, does this matter? Maybe I’m placing unreasonable expectations on the story to be something that it simply isn’t. But it struck me as odd, all the same.
Lastly, as an end note to this review, I would like to celebrate the inclusion in this book of a successful, non-reductive epilogue that takes us into the future. I’ve gone on record many times, whining about the two page epilogues tacked on to the end of books that give us a glimpse of who our characters marry and how many babies they have and little else. But this epilogue gives a character portrait for each of our protagonists that shows us a bit of the pathway they take as they grow up into womanhood as well as their adult relationship or lack thereof with each other. It’s a beautiful ending that brings the story to a sense of completion, while reinforcing the friendship between these three young women as the central component of the book as a whole.
Review Copy purchased at Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago, IL