I kind of hate rating books with stars or thumbs-up or even just saying I’d recommend something, flat-out, because sometimes you’re in a mood for a book that engages you while you’re reading it, hooks you in, amuses you, and then the moment you finish, you sigh and say AHHHH with pleasure and then promptly forget everything about the book except that you liked it.
Those books? The AHHHH…Forget Books? Very important to me. In fact, I think they make up the majority of the books I’ve read. They are good because they amuse and entertain and grip you. That’s no small thing.
Then there are books that you can’t shake loose if you tried. They sort of cling to you. Not in a yucky way. But in a way where the story and the characters and the ideas raised keep tumbling around in your mind to a degree that you wish everyone around you had read the book so they could understand why you’re so befuddled/distracted.
Let’s call those HMMMM…Whoa Books. September Girls is definitely a HMMMM…Whoa Book.
Yes, the story is captivating and full of mystery and weirdness and entertainment. Yes, Sam, our narrator, offers many (often witty) insights on this endless-summer world of the beach and his broken-up family and douchey brother and the September Girls themselves.
But once I finished the book, I was left with a kind of aftertaste. Not in a bad way. Just, I can’t shake it: Bennett Madison’s September Girls and Sam and Jeff. I’m thinking about Things. With a capital T. Like, manhood. And motherhood. And femininity. And fate. And all the talking past each other the genders do. And sex. And posing. And desire. And stereotypes. And beauty. And the nature of time.
Here is an excerpt I adore, from the eponymous Girls themselves:
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. Where we come from, beauty is so ordinary that we don’t even know we are beautiful. It is only after we arrive here that we begin to understand the knife that we clutch.
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 sexiness that appears unconsidered. The women think we’re tacky, but we’re not interested in the opinions of women anymore. We learned long ago how unimportant the opinions of women are. We are here because our mother could not protect us. We are here because our father had an “opinion.”
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.
We crawl onto land naked. We learn to use our breasts (large but not cartoonish), our asses (heart-shaped, unblemished), our eyelashes (impossibly long), our lips (smirking, exotic, and always, always glossy). We learn how to dance, how to flirt. How to toss our hair and slam shots and play pool (we are exceptional pool players, but we know it’s best to lose on purpose) and how to talk about football. We learn to fuck, yes, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that it’s almost never the fucking that gets you anywhere. It’s the not fucking. Except in certain and very specific circumstances. Thrust, parry, thrust, thrust, kill. How are we to survive?
We learn quickly.
Rather, most of us learn. There are those of us who take a while to figure things out. There are those of us who never quite get it. And now and then there is a girl who is certain (certain!) of her skill until the moment she’s gutted by her own blade.
“I leave you with only one thing,” our father tells us–so we have been told–just before he casts us out. “I allow you your knife,” he says.
A knife is sometimes a tool. A knife is sometimes a weapon. You can eat off a knife if you don’t have a fork or a spoon. A knife can be used as a mirror, in a pinch. And if you’re lost in the woods, a knife is helpful for marking your path on tree trunks. But what the hell good is a knife, really?
Never trust a gift from your fuckface father.