“I think you are in the middle of a story whose ending you cannot yet see; but that’s true for all of us, isn’t it?”The last book in Sarah McCarry’s brilliant Metamorphoses trilogy tells the story of eighteen-year-old Tally, an aspiring astronomer who lives in New York with her parents (Aunt Beast, the unnamed narrator of All Our Pretty Songs, plus her best friend Raoul and his husband Henri), spends a lot of time with her best friend Shane, is gloriously snarky, and works part-time at a bookshop.
Tally is loved, self-assured, and confident that she has a bright future ahead of her. But her well-ordered life is disrupted when, first of all, she develops unexpected feelings for Shane; secondly, when something sets her on a quest to find the man who might be her biological father — a reclusive former rock star named Jack — and learn more about the birth mother she never met. Tally travels to a small seaside town in Washington state, where she meets people who may or may not be ancient goddesses and heroines from Greek mythology. She also falls in love with Maddie, a girl with honey-coloured eyes and a complicated past. During this strange, hazy summer, Tally experiences overwhelming passion and grief, doubt and ecstatic joy, and learns about the infinite complexities of the universe and of her own heart.
About a Girl is loosely inspired by the story of the Golden Fleece, in the same way All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings are loose retellings of the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and Persephone and Demeter. It is, I think, the most accomplished of McCarry’s novels, though Dirty Wings will always remain the one closest to my heart. But Tally’s narrative voice is a thing of wonder (do read this post by McCarry about what she was trying to do, and succeeds at magnificently), and the novel’s expert blend of myth and reality reminded me of the sense of awe I felt when I was eighteen and reading Sandman for the first time. McCarry’s myth-infused fantasies are very much their own thing, but the skill with which they’re executed is that exciting. In All Our Pretty Songs, we were reminded that “We have paved over the ancient world, but that does not mean we have erased it”; indeed, these are novels that get to the heart of the old myths and reflect back the truths they tell us about the messy business of being human; truths that are, after all, big parts of the reason why we keep coming back to these stories.
Another thing About a Girl does very well is capture the foggy sense of time Tally experiences while on her quest in a way that doesn’t ever become confusing for the reader. Tally is under a spell of sorts, and also dizzyingly in love: whole weeks go by without her quite being able to account for them; decisions she should perhaps be questioning become, if not exactly logical, then at least inevitable; promises to call her worried but trusting parents are forgotten the minute after they are made. The novel makes us occupy the same mental and emotional space Tally is in without ever letting its haziness confuse the narrative’s assured direction. Instead, it becomes another thing that contributes to About a Girl’s precise emotional tone.
There were many things I loved about this novel: firstly, how it widens the range of stories we tell in ways that matter but are never self-congratulatory. About a Girl acknowledges truths about our world and the people in it that are usually left out of fiction, and it does so in a way that feels truly organic — because really, why wouldn’t it? Of course families that exist outside traditional structures can be places of security, stability, and rock-solid love (as Tally puts it, “my ridiculous, precious family, patchworked together out of love”); of course trans boys can be love interests, and of course they’re not wholly defined by the fact that they’re trans; of course girls can be aware of their own brilliance; of course not everyone in the world is white or straight; of course new emotional connection don’t necessarily erase old ones; of course girls fall in one with one another and have passionate relationships. These are all unremarkable truths to the people who experience them every day, and it was lovely to find a story that treats them as such: as facts about the universe that belong in our stories but don’t erase everything else.
As I said, Tally learns about complexity over the summer the story’s set in, including the complexity of her own emotional life. She leaves New York hopelessly in love with her friend Shane, she falls in love with Maddie by the Pacific, she returns with both sets of feelings coexisting in her heart. I appreciate how this novel — all of McCarry’s novels, really — acknowledge that people’s emotions and relationships don’t always fit the structures we recognise and have codified in our language, and at the same time, that experiences that fall outside this narrow range aren’t always sources of inner or outer conflict. They aren’t always struggles; sometimes they’re things we live and they are our truths.
But my favourite thing about this novel was Maddy, or Medea. Tally falls in love with the honey-eyed stranger she spots at the town’s only bar without much caring who she is, and once she finds out, she continues not much caring. Her love is significant, though, in a way I found subversive and moving and amazingly done. In her excellent guest post about Medea for The Book Smugglers, McCarry says, “We are not meant to love Medea. But I do”. When we talk about Medea, we talk about blood and vengeance, about murder made as shocking as we can conceive of it. But we’re really also talking about what puts a woman beyond any possibility of love, and how much more easily we decide that they have crossed that line than men in analogous stories.
Medea, murderer of her own children, is meant to embody our very worst imaginings, but outside the extremity of myth it doesn’t take that much to be deemed a monster if you’re a girl. Sometimes all it takes is saying no. Sometimes all you need to do is not give in, not to be a “good girl”; do what’s right for you regardless of how it might make others feel. Sometimes all it takes to be a monster is not to coddle the people who were raised to think they’re more real and more human than you are, so of course their feelings and their needs should always come first. Of course it’s monstrous to believe and behave otherwise; of course that makes you unworthy of love. Sometimes, also, we make mistakes, as human beings do.
When I was reading About a Girl, I thought about a scene in another favourite book I read this year, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree: the protagonist, Faith, gives in during a fight with her beloved father because “her self-respect had suffered a head-on collision with love”, and “love does not fight fair”. It’s an important scene because it acknowledges the impossible position girls and women are put it, and also how very, very hard defiance is when you’re entirely on your own. Craving love is only human and it’s not a weakness, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used against us.
In About a Girl, Tally loves Maddie, and that simple fact raises the amazing possibility that perhaps girls can be loved without always being required to give in or excise part of themselves. This is harder than it should be in a world that is what it is, but we desperately need stories that remind us that it can be done: that we get to be human and prickly and messy too without moving beyond the reach of emotional ties. Between this and Nimona, I declare 2015 an excellent year for stories about monstrous girls. May there be many more.
One last thing before I finish: Jenny made a very insightful point in her review, about how closely the hopefulness of About a Girl is tied to the solid foundation of love in Tally’s life. It’s perfectly worded, and so I wanted to quote it:
If Tally makes better choices than her mother and grandmother, than her aunt and great-aunt, it’s because she has the freedom of choice that comes with a stable childhood and a safety net for when she makes mistakes. That McCarry ends the series on a happier note than she did her previous two novels is lovely and hopeful without feeling like a betrayal of Cass and Maia or Aurora and Aunt Beast.It is, and it doesn’t. We saw in the previous two novels how girls can be robbed of the kind of happiness we desperately wish for them, and here we see the kind of circumstances where they’re allowed to thrive instead.
I can’t tell you enough how much I love this trilogy. They’re simultaneous books for my adult feminist self, who loves music and mythology, Francesca Lia Block and Elizabeth Hand, and books I desperately wish I’d had around as a teen. So get them for yourself, and, if you can, get extra copies for any teens in your life.
Bits I liked:
I had always been envious of Raoul, who spoke Navajo, Spanish, French, and English with equal facility; who knew the names of generations of his ancestors and the history of the land where he was born by heart; and who made out of the places he had been and the place to which he had come poems that even I, Philistine though I was in matters of verse, could recognize were each like tiny, flawless, self-contained worlds; but it had never occurred to me that trading one life for another might be a passage paid for in loss.
I could have fallen forever into those honey-colored depths: sun on white sand, ocean blue as a swimming pool, white sails snapping in the wind; a man with yellow hair and brown eyes, tanned dark; Jack with his lyre—with his lyre?—and then drawn all across it, a curtain of blood—I yelped and jerked away from her, my mouth flooding with the sour iron taste; I had bitten my tongue. Buzzing in my ears. And then she kissed me again, hard, and I forgot what I had been thinking about because it didn’t matter, none of it mattered, the only thing that mattered was her—her hands on my skin and her mouth at the hollow of my throat.