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Cybils Book Review: September Girls by Bennett Madison

I have heard a lot about this book, and the reviews fall onto both extremes of the spectrum.  It appears that this is either a love it or hate it book.  But then, I’m not entirely sure what I think about it.  It appears on the Kirkus Best Teen Books of 2013 list. I read this book as part of the Cybils.

September Girls is unlike any book I have read before with its dreamy look at one teenage boy who learns about life and love during a summer spent at a seaside town that seems populated with perfectly beautiful blonde haired girls.  It is an expert use of magical realism to explore, among many other themes, the role that sex can play in our lives and the empowerment of people.  Or in this case, cursed mermaids and teenage boys.

When Sam’s mother just up and leaves, the men she leaves behind are having a hard time coping.  So they set off for the seaside town that his father once visited and spend the summer.  There, Sam is intrigued by the blonde haired girls that seem to populate the place.  Sam is angry and bitter, justly, and this story is in part a look at how he learns to let go of that anger and open himself back up to life.

It is also a mystery of sorts, for these blonde hair girls don’t know a lot about who they are.  They come from the sea, naked and nameless, and they choose their own identities.  And at the age of 21, they go back to the sea.  It’s a cycle they want desperately to break so they can take control of their own destiny.  They don’t know what kind of life they want or who they want to be, but they know they want the opportunity – the right – to decide this for themselves.  But they are cursed by a father, Endlessness, who was angry with their mother, Deepness.

At the core of the discussion around this title are the issues of feminism and sexuality.  It is particularly interesting to note that the curse apparently can only be broken by having sex with a man, seemingly giving power to the men.  But the girls use and manipulate the men around them to try and break the curse, seeming to take the power for themselves.  And of course that is all a gross oversimplification of the power struggles, relationships, and themes that occur in September Girls.  I really recommend reading The Book Smugglers break down of the feminist themes and the author discussing the themes himself.  There is also some great discussion to be had about objectification and beauty standards, which Madison highlights in the previously mentioned interview.  You can also find another great discussion of the title by Karyn Silverman at SLJ.

The issue of sex is very complex in this book because in a way, everyone is being coerced into having sex in order to try and break the curse – both the girls and the boys.  This, more than anything, is part of what I really struggled with in reading this book.

Other great discussions include the ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman: How do we define ourselves, how does the culture we live in influence that, and how can we break free from those around us telling us who we are so that we can truly become ourselves?  I loved the ending where one character leaves on a journey of self-discovery and admits she has no idea where she is going or who she will become, which is exactly what everyone feels as they step out of adolescence into adulthood.

“Being a man is bullshit; maybe trying to be a man had been the problem all along. At a certain point you just have to trust someone. Even if it’s only yourself.” – from September Girls
“We have learned by now that our beauty does not count as a possession. The only thing we truly own is our legend.”
  – from September Girls

September Girls is a very complex, thought provoking book.  Highly discussable, though obviously it has some mature themes and content and is recommended for the more mature YA reader.  Whether you end up liking the book or not, I think it does the core thing we want great literature to do: make you think.  I know that since reading it I have wanted to talk to everyone about it, so that makes it very highly recommended in my book.

Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading your discussion of September Girls. My teen book club read this book last summer and we had two great online chats with the author, one as part of a nation-wide library program, and the other as an intimate conversation with about 10 teens at my library. I prefaced the reading with the caveat that the book is for mature teen readers, and some of the middle schoolers opted out, but I did not regret the selection in any way…our group had a great discussion and Bennett was so gracious and fun. I'd love to see more dialogue about this book and look forward to the author's next title.

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