The Knife: September Girls Cuts To The Heart

A Review of September Girls by Bennett Madison

HarperTeen, 2013

September Girls Bennett Madison

by REBECCA, May 5, 2014

hook

When Sam arrives at a small beach town with his dad and brother for the summer he notices that something is strange about its other inhabitants—all beautiful blonde girls—but can’t quite figure out what. When he starts to fall for one of them, he’ll get answers he never could have imagined.

review

I’ve been meaning to read September Girls all year and now that it’s getting warm, I finally sat down with most poignant of beach reads. After Sam’s mother takes off, his father loses it, sinking into a drunken depression and then diving manically into the task of finding himself. That summer, he decides that he, Sam, and Sam’s collegiate brother, Jeff, should leave town and take to the beach, where they’ll stay until September.

Sam’s father quickly throws himself into searching for buried treasure with a metal detector, and Jeff treats him to lectures on how this is the summer he should lose his virginity, but Sam misses his mother and finds himself walking alone for hours in a landscape that never quite seems the same twice. He’s a little sad, a little bored, and a lot anxious about growing up.

“[Dad often told me] that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy—with vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair—but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next—ta-da!—a man, as if anyone would ever notice the difference.

Like you can just instantly transform like that. Like manhood is this distinct thing with actual markers and consequences. Well, maybe it is. But even if it is—if there is any person on this planet who actually knows what it means to be a man, anyone who could truly sum it up—I would guess my father to be among the very fucking last to have the tiniest clue.”

He’s self-conscious that he’s a virgin, knows that he looks skinny and unimpressive next to his brother, and isn’t particularly interested in doing anything about either. So, when the swarm of beautiful, voluptuous, blonde girls who work at every business in town seem to be interested in Sam, he’s understandably confused. Even if most of them don’t speak to him, he sees them staring, smiling, and paying a kind of attention to him that he’s never received. And, because he’s not an idiot, he’s pretty weirded out by it.

The first night they’re at the beach, Jeff and Sam see a girl washed ashore from the ocean pull herself to hands and knees and scuttle away into the dunes. And this is just the first of many strange and confusing things that they witness. Little by little, his brother starts to fall for one of the girls, Kristle (pronounced like Crystal), and he strikes up a confusing and intense friendship with another, DeeDee.

As he and DeeDee get closer, the secret of the girls—or the Girls, as Sam thinks of them—slowly comes into focus. They aren’t human; they come from the sea, cursed to live in human form for a limited time, and unable to leave the beach town. Call them mermaids if you like, but they have no gender. They merely assume the form that instinct tells them will be most beneficial to beings who arrive on land with nothing: young, beautiful, female, and blonde.

September Girls has been a wildly divisive book in terms of public reviews, with a number of 5-star raves and even more 1-star pans. Nearly all of the latter are given with reference to accusations of the book’s sexism and misogyny. I’m gobsmacked by this truly careless reading, and desperately sad that the book’s public reputation has been tainted by it because it couldn’t be further from the truth. To the contrary, September Girls engages with our widespread culture of sexism and misogyny—sex as power; trapped girls; sex as necessity; addlepated boys—and skewers it. (I won’t do a point-by-point rebuttal of the accusations because The Book Smuggler’s review HERE does a great job of that.) Bennett Madison raises questions not only about gender, but about the power of narratives to concretize, challenge, reinscribe, and invert gendered tropes.

We have learned that we are beautiful. All of us. We are all beautiful. To those who may read this: we are more beautiful. No matter how beautiful you are, we are more. We just are. . . . We say this with no pride at all. We say it, maybe, with a little sadness. Our beauty is a gift that we have had no choice but to accept. . . . We were offered only beauty. We took it and we use it. It’s nothing special. It’s how we survive.

Since we have no word for beauty, we use the closest word we have. We call it the knife. Our beauty is only our knife. Our beauty is our only knife. It’s just a knife: rusty blade, ordinary handle. But it’s sharp. It does its thing. Nothing special.

When is nothing special the most important thing? When it’s the only thing. . . . We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with a sexiness that appears unconsidered. . . . So. We learn how to use our breasts, our asses, our eyelashes, our lips. We learn how to get what we want.

No. Not what we want. We never get what we want, do we? We learn how to get what we need.”

September Girls is a dreamy, beautifully-written meditation on how the unstructured time of summer allows for self-exploration and change that the school year makes impossible. Absent anyone from home who really knows him, Sam is on a scary but necessary journey to find out who he is. Part of that is figuring out what it means to engage with a gendered world (because such attitudes are, unfortunately, pervasive). Part of it is learning to appreciate himself. Part of it is learning how to be sad, how to be bored, how to admit to yourself that you aren’t special all the time.

Some have found September Girls a bit dull or slow-paced, but for me it perfectly echoed the feeling of standing in the surf, feet in the sand as the ocean drags it from under you. After each chapter told from Sam’s perspective is a section told from the Girls’ perspective (like the quote above), creating a give and take of ocean and land, and when Sam loses time it’s like the exhausted, lightheaded, salt-drenched moment when you fall asleep on the beach, too sun-drained and beach-blind to notice the hour.

September Girls is a beautiful piece of speculative fiction that’s as dreamy as the ocean and as rough as sand in your underwear. I can’t wait to read whatever Bennett Madison writes next.

readalikes

Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989). September Girls’ placiness reminded me of Block’s L.A.—something about the combination of heat and love.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2011). In Stiefvater’s tale, it’s horses that come from the sea, but it’s similarly dreamy, with harsh reality abutting the speculative. My full review is HERE.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz (2013). When Rudy leaves everything he knows to move to an island whose magic fish might be able to cure his brother’s cystic fibrosis he knows things will never be the same. What he can’t know is that he’ll meet someone who changes everything he knows about himself . . . and presents him with a life and death dilemma. How will Rudy choose between two people he loves? Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. September Girls by Bennett Madison is available now.

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3 Comments

  1. Margalit

     /  May 6, 2014

    Terrific review. Sounds like an interesting read, and a thoughtful author.

  2. Very interesting and thoughtful review. (As yours tend to be!) Only one of us has read it, and she is the more analytical minded when it comes to literature, so she too felt that the themes of the book were under-appreciated by many readers… However, she and all of us have to ask: If so many readers didn’t understand, then was the book really successful?

    {shrug} There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s just something we’ve chewed on.

    • Thanks, ladies! Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I guess I’m of the mind that it’s possible to be a ungenerous reader. That’s not to say that there’s only one right interpretation of a novel, certainly. But it seems to me that with September Girls those readers who thought it was sexist read one instance of something that seemed to be commenting on sexism and then didn’t do the interpretive work that the book does. So, for me, they failed the book rather than the other way around.

      Still, I think that’s the risk an author takes when they write something complicated that raises complex issues but doesn’t presume to solve them. Some people will be dissatisfied.

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