September Girls by Bennett Madison. Harper Teen 2013. Currently Available.
Face Value: Nothing special. In fact, this cover is a big part of why I wasn’t all that interested in the book before it started getting crazy buzz. It looks like your standard mermaid book, with soft lighting and flowing hair and nothing all that interesting. Luckily, it’s way more than that.
Does it Break the Slate? In my opinion, this is absolutely a Slatebreaking title. This is one of the most divisive books for feminist readers that I’ve come across in the time that I’ve been blogging. Some people are outraged by it’s misogyny while others cheer it as a feminist text. So I get that liking this book comes down to perception. In my mind, it’s absolutely a feminist book, a fantasy that tells a story about a teenage boy learning about the systems of patriarchy that oppress women.
Who would we give it to? I think that both boys and girls will like this one, but I really think that this would be a terrific book to read and discuss with young men. There’s also an audience with the more traditional mermaid book fans, who might find something new and interesting in this story.
Review: As I mentioned, there are widely different opinions on this book. It wasn’t something on my radar at first, just because the description didn’t really grab me. But it’s been blurbed by some of my favorite writers – E. Lockhart, Sara Zarr, Nova Ren Suma, all loved it enough to offer a sentence on the cover. It got a bunch of starred reviews. And then the blog reviews started rolling in, from blogs that I adore and generally agree with about a lot of things. They fit into two extremes – either finding the book to be dramatically and appallingly sexist or terrific and feminist. Once I started to see this, there was no way not to read it – for curiosity more than anything else. And while I can totally see both sides of the issue, after reading the book myself I came down on the feminist side of things. So I’m going to talk about my perspective, here – its’ going to involve inevitable spoilers.
Here’s the plot: Sam’s father takes him and his college-age brother to the beach for the summer after the boys mom leaves. It doesn’t take long for Sam to realize that something is different about this beach. There are all of these stunningly beautiful girls there who seem dramatically interested in Sam. One in particular, DeeDee, grabs his attention – it seems to be mutual. They fall for each other. And them Sam finds out the bigger picture. DeeDee and her sisters are mermaids. Their father has cursed them to life on land, where they take care of each other until they turn 21 and disappear into the ocean forever. The only way to avoid their fate and return home is to have sex with a virgin boy. Sam is a virgin boy. Hence the interest.
This is a twisted, dark, seriously creepy fairy tale. These girls have their identity taken from them, starting with their names. As explained:
“We come here without names. There are the names they call us. But those aren’t our names. The names they hall us are not hard to guess. Comehere, Wheresmyfood, Trysmilingsometime, and Suckonthis are four common ones, but the list goes predictably on from there and only gets uglier. Those are the names they call us. Those are not our names. We choose our names.”
So the girls choose their own names, from books or TV or from beauty products or other brand names. They find each other, and take care of each other, and teach each other how to survive in the strange place they have been banished to. Part of that survival is performing sexiness, performing femininity, presenting a very specific type of female-ness in order to break the curse. And yes, that is super creepy. But I felt much more that this is a commentary on patriarchal systems than an embracing of those ideals.
Along these same lines, there are sexist characters in this book. There are sexist things that happen. Sam’s brother Jeff and his friends from home are sexist jerks, who objectify women and don’t see a problem with that. This sucks, yes. But Sam, our protagonist, is on a journey to think differently. He is learning about systems of patriarchy, both in the real world and in this extreme version of the fantasy world that he encounters. His understanding of what is happening to DeeDee and her sisters struck me as a metaphor about this kid learning about the bigger systems of patriarchy that exist in the world, and his privilege within that. He ends the summer a different kid, because his eyes have been opened.
This passage has gotten a lot of attention on both sides of the feminist argument for this book. Sam stumbles across DeeDee at a party and she’s hiding out in a room, reading the Bible (it’s the only reading material you can count on to be stocked in vacation rentals apparently). Talking about the Bible, she tells him:
“I like the parts about hos, even if they always come to a bad end. Eat a fucking apple, you’re a ho. Open a box, you’re a ho. Some guy looks at you: turn to stone, ho. See you later, ho. It’s always the same. The best one is Lilith–also a ho, but a different kind of ho. She went and got her own little thing going, and for that she gets to be an eternal demon queen, lucky her. No one likes a ho. Except when they do, which, obviously, is most of the time. Doesn’t make a difference; she always gets hers eventually.”
I have seen this passage deconstructed in totally opposite ways on different reviews. Some people are appalled, others delighted. For me, I found this section to be fascinating, demonstrating DeeDee’s awareness of her situation. They are cursed because of their gender, just like the women in the Bible who are constantly blamed and villainized because of their gender. Going back to the Bible, DeeDee is telling us, women have been told that they are weaker, they are less, they are responsible for the bad things that men do. And these systems have been in place so long, it’s really hard to change them. DeeDee is being sarcastic, but she’s also making an excellent point, about her own situation and about the bigger picture of patriarchy in the world.
So yes, the girls in this story are aware. They are angry. It’s totally messed up that they are condemned by a man and can only be saved by a man. They are pushing against the system they are a part of, but that doesn’t mean that they know how to stop it. Which could be said about a lot of patriarchal systems that exist in our reality. I’ve read the complaint that this is about a boy saving a girl, and yes, this is Sam’s story, which I understand but I read it as being a story about Sam coming to terms with the world he lives in and his limits and privileges within that. Feminism is good for boys too! We hardly ever get to talk about that! Sam, his brother, his friends – they are all done a disservice by the patriarchal expectations of masculinity, and this book deconstructs those ideas in a fascinating way.
I’d love to continue being part of the discussion about this book, because I feel like I barely scratched the surface in this review. So if you have other opinions that disagree with mine, that add to them, please leave them in the comments! Let’s discuss!
Reviewed from library copy.