BOOK REVIEW: What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Young Adult / Contemporary
When Nina Faye is 14, her mother tells her that there is no such thing as unconditional love. This warps Nina’s understanding of what girls are good for, and at 17, she’s willing to do anything emotionally and sexually to keep her boyfriend. He leaves her anyway, perhaps because of her passivity, and it’s only through remembering a trip to Rome she made when she was 14, where she saw Christian martyr saints willing to give up their lives for their faith, that she comes to realize how wrong her mother’s advice was, and that what girls are made of is more than the sum of their sexual parts and abilities.
If you’re looking for something that is going to push boundaries, and not hold back on much of the goriness of being a girl, this could well be the kind of book you’re after.
In What Girls Are Made Of, Nina Faye journeys from obtaining birth control through to the gory details of going through a medical abortion. Readers are shown her obsession with a boy named Seth, both before, during, and after dating him.
Is reciprocity a condition for love? I have always accepted that my mother is right – that no one will love me without conditions. But I reject the idea that I must set conditions for loving Seth. I want to love someone no matter what. I want to love someone even if it hurts me. Am I a saint? A broken dog in a cardboard box?
She talks about miscarriages, masturbation, and martyrs. About self-induced orgasms vs. unsatisfying sex with the object of her affection. She works in a high-kill animal shelter and talks openly about the dogs that are more likely to be adopted than others, and what happens to the animals who are put to sleep.
Then the bodies are boiled. Yes, boiled. To separate the fat, which is sold through a bidding process to whoever can pay the most for it. The fat is used to make lipstick. Household cleaners. Dog food. Cat food. The bones are ground up, and they end up in pet food, too. Like the Soylent Green of the animal kingdom.
Only when everything useful has been stripped from the dog’s carcass is it burned to ash.
She talks about the way women have been and continue to be treated by society.
“It was used to punish women who had sex with Satan,” Mom said, her voice matter-of fact, “and to punish women who allowed themselves to miscarry.”
“Allowed themselves to?” I didn’t know which sounded more insane – thinking that women were having sex with the devil or blaming women for their miscarriages. But then I remembered with a twinge how I had felt when my mother’s crystal tumbler reappeared after she had lost the baby I’d named Chloe. Part of me had been angry. Part of me did blame her, even though I had never spoken about it with her, with anyone.
“As long as there have been women,” Mom told me, “there have been ways to punish them for being women.”
In between chapters, readers are given a taste of Nina’s own writing, in the form of short or flash fiction of a magical realism flavour, but with a revisited theme of the way women have been and continue to be treated and used by society.
So far I have written one story about a girl who grows vaginas all over he body, a couple of weird little things about chickens and eggs, and I have a growing collection of stories I’ve written about the deaths of virgin martyr saints, but I’m not ready to share any of it with him, or anyone.
For this reader, these in-between bits were the most enjoyable part of the book.
The rest, while confronting, while discussing things that are definitely important in this society which is still often squeamish about the bodily functions of women, just doesn’t seem to get where it’s trying to go.
Perhaps it is all the jumping around, between Nina at twelve and Nina at seventeen (and then Nina at sixteen, and Nina at fourteen, and then back to seventeen), that denies the reader any real kind of narrative. Perhaps it is the fact that the book is only 183 pages, and the author tried to pack so much into it, that it couldn’t help but become preachy.
Perhaps it’s the existence of certain lines in the text that seem idiotic, propagandist, and at best insensitive.
“The first time, I was a little younger than you. My boyfriend and I were sexually active, but the condom we were using broke. I should have come to a place like this and gotten the Morning After Pill, but I didn’t even know it existed. By the time I admitted to myself that my period was never going to come, I was thirteen weeks pregnant. Too far along for the Abortion Pill. The second time was just last year.”
“Oh,” I say. Then, “Were you sorry? Are you sorry?”
Angie shakes her head. I don’t believe in God,” she says, “But if I did, I’d thank him every day for both of my abortions.”
It turns out that it’s the perfect weekend to have an abortion because my parents decide to drive up the coast for a couple of nights, something they do every now and then.
The latter of these is said by a teenage girl, and can perhaps be forgiven because teenagers are often glib, and this seems to be the way she deals with things.
But the former? Being thankful for living in a state that would allow her to have an abortion is one thing, but thanking God, every day, for her abortions?!
I call bullshit.
As I said, it’s all well and good to be thankful for the choice, but the wording here is offensive, and I say that as an agnostic, so my issue isn’t with the mention of God in this context.
In addition to this, Nina is self-destructive and of that age when everything is incredibly dramatic, and any little thing could make life miserable, and at times she behaves this way, at others she seems either stable or disconnected. Any growth that she goes through is not apparent. Perhaps, again, because of the jumping back and forth, but perhaps there just isn’t a whole lot of growth there to witness.
All in all this was a good concept with a lot of good points, but for this reader there was something missing in the execution, something that stopped any real connection forming between the reader and the main character.
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