September Girls by Bennett Madison (Harper Teen, May 21st 2013, 342 pages)

September Girls

September Girls flew completely under my radar – not much of a mermaid fan here – until the reviews started rolling. And that was when I became REALLY interested in the book because the reactions to the book are so divisive. I first heard the negative: from fellow bloggers at Cuddlebuggery who thought the book was terribly sexist and anti-feminist and then lots of others Goodreaders followed suit with the same reaction. Then I noticed it got starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. It got blurbs from E. Lockhart, Sara Zarr and Nova Ren Suma – all writers who write awesome books with awesome girls in them. Heck, E.Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is the apex of feminist YA. Forever YA loved it and Kelly Jensen from Stacked called it a feminist read.

Needless to say, I had to see for myself.

And I am SO glad I did. My own take? I love it. I agree with those who say this is a feminist book. I think September Girls is not only NOT sexist, but also quite the opposite: I think it challenges sexism directly in a myriad of ways but also does so metaphorically. It questions patriarchy, the idea of “manhood” very explicitly and it does so in a beautifully written, languid, thought-provoking story. It’s absolutely one of my favourite reads this year.

Allow me to expound on why. Please note: I am hoping it is clear that I am not attacking different readings of September Girls but I feel I need to interact directly with some of the sexism claims because to me it is important to offer a different take. So here is my deconstruction of the novel and most importantly, of the claims of sexism levelled at it.

WARNING: ALL THE SPOILERS.

The story is mostly narrated by Sam, a young 17-year-old boy who is spending his summer with his father and brother Jeff at a remote beach house in a sleepy location full of strange, beautiful Girls. Sam addresses them with the capital G because they are so other: all equally blond, all equally weird, all beautiful, extremely sexy and – unexpectedly – coming on to him. When he meets DeeDee, one of the Girls, they start to fall for each other. Then he learns what the Girls really are.

September Girls is a dark, twisted, fucked-up fairytale in which mermaids (or beings that are very similar to mermaids) have been cursed by their Father . Sam shares the narrative with one of the Girls who is telling him – us – everything about them in this eerie, amazing tale. It’s almost like a siren song.

We are told that: their father curses them because he hated their Mother, who is called a Whore:

“We have been told that she was a whore, although we can’t remember who told us that, and we often find ourselves arguing over the true definition of whore.”

We are told that: the curse entails being sent away from home abruptly and with very vague memories of why and how. They show up at the shore one day, naked and barely formed. They can’t swim. Their feet hurt with every step. They don’t know how to speak, what to think and they don’t even remember their names:

“We come here without names. There are the names they call us. But those aren’t our names.
The names they call us are not hard to guess. Comehere, Wheresmyfood, Trysmilingsometime, and Suckonthis are four common ones, but the list goes predictably on from there and only gets uglier.
Those are the names they call us. Those are not our names. We choose our own names.”

We are told that: they have no identity or memory but they know that to break the curse they need to find a good, virgin boy to have sex with and so they must forge their identify in the way that will work best for them in attracting those boys. They forge it by the most immediate things they see in front of them: fashion magazines and TV shows and thus they realise that becoming sexy, blond girls will give them the best chance to break the curse:

“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’ “.

We are told that: when they finally find a Virgin boy, their curse does not allow them to act – they must always wait for the guy to notice them. Only when the curse is broken can they return to their elusive home. They are all sisters but sisterhood is dangerous.

And it’s all horrible and unfair and just like Sam says at one point: these Girls’ parents are real fucking assholes.

A possible reading is to take those quotes and the curse itself at face value – they do sound incredibly misogynistic. That’s because they are. That is in fact, the point. If that curse and those quotes I chose are not a brilliant, REALLY OBVIOUS metaphor for how girls experience sexism in our society as well as an example of the weight of unfair expectations bearing on them, I don’t know anything anymore.

In a way I think the best criticism that could be levelled at the book is that at the end of the day, this could still be construed as a book that shows female suffering as a means to talk about feminism. And given that the way to break a curse is to have sex with a virgin boy, this could still be construed as a book that puts a lot of power on the hands of the male. That said, with regards to the former, ours is a world in which women do experience sexism every single day and even though I love to see diverse stories where those are not perpetuated, I also want to see stories that do acknowledge that, that do acknowledge the wtfuckery of fairytales and of ridiculous curses and above all, I want to read stories like this one which does exactly that in the way that it so cleverly addresses sexism and patriarchy.

My reading is that this curse is a mirror. It is a mirror reflecting our world – but in many ways it is also a broken mirror because the questioning is always there. It’s in the way that the Girls DO form friendships with each other. In the way that the Girls DO try to break the curse in a myriad of ways by attempting to leave the beach and the town: Girls have almost died trying. There are those who challenge the rules and those who simply accept their deaths without breaking the curse. And it’s not even a heteronormative story either: girls have fallen in love with other girls as well. This book would be a bad, sexist idea if the sexism wasn’t challenged at every step of the way, if their Father wasn’t presented as a raging misogynist who is worthy of contempt.

Reading is such an awesome thing and as I said, my aim is not to discredit other people’s readings of the book. I truly find fascinating the ways that readers have interacted with September Girls. There is for example, a passage that has been quoted in several reviews and used to support the claims of misogyny and sexism and slut shaming. I wanted to quote it here to as support exactly the opposite. In it DeeDee and Sam are chatting after her reading of the Bible:

“I like the parts about hos, even if they always come to a bad end. Eat a fucking apple, you’re a ho. Open a box, you’re a ho. Some guy looks at you: turn to stone, ho. See you later, ho. It’s always the same. The best one is Lilith–also a ho, but a different kind of ho. She went and got her own little thing going, and for that she gets to be an eternal demon queen, lucky her. No one likes a ho. Except when they do, which, obviously, is most of the time. Doesn’t make a difference; she always gets hers eventually.”

To me this passage is incredibly subversive and sarcastic. It shows that DeeDee is fully aware. To support my claim of awareness, she even says a bit later on: “I actually like hos myself. Maybe I am one – I barely know what counts anymore”. She has read feminist tracts and understands how society works: “I love how when boys have a completely unacceptable habit like peeing in the sink, science actually goes to all the trouble to come up with a justification for it.” Or when Sam “congratulates” her for having opinions, she says: “Oh, thank you, I’m so glad you approve of me having a thought in my brain.”

So to me? DeeDee = fucking awesome.

BUT even if taken at face value, even if we want to believe that DeeDee IS slut shaming in the Bible quote, it would also be ok in the context of this novel. Because there are Girls who do not question. There are Girls who simply go about doing what they are supposed to do. And that is also a significant way to portray internalized, unquestioned sexism – we are all part of this world after all and are all subject to sexist messages all the time. This is all the more clear in the book with regards to the Girls.

So I have written all of that and so far haven’t even touched on the subject of Sam and his dick or Sam and his raging sexism and how those connect to some of the criticism I have seen with regards to the book: the language used, the continuous swearing as well as references to sex and to private parts. To wit: I understand that each reader has different thresholds for what they like to read and how much cursing they can take and September Girls can be seen as extremely crass in parts.

But to me, it was not really crass as much as it is straightforward and bullshit-less. To me, Sam has a healthy relationship with his dick – he calls it a dick, he likes to masturbate and gets boners. There is this one time, he thinks to himself that all he wanted to do was to go home, relax and masturbate and go to sleep and – this is probably Too Much Information but at this point, I don’t really care anymore – I TOTALLY GET THIS, BRO.

There is also this one scene in particular that a lot of readers see problems with in which he is staring at this beautiful beach, he is feeling the sun on his back, it’s the first day of his summer holidays and he says something like “I felt a heaviness in my dick”. I totally get how sensual moments like these are, you know? But also, this is not all that moment entails: the heaviness in his dick is because:

“I felt strong and solid, more myself – the best version of myself, I mean – than I had in a while.”

The contextual meanings of all of this is that Sam is learning who he is, he is searching for an identity and to an understanding of what it means to be a “man”. This is a recurrent theme in the novel. This is the main point of the novel. As early as page ONE Sam talks about his father and brother thusly:

“The most obnoxious thing about them was their tendency to land on the topic of my supposedly impeding manhood: 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 – which 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 someone would even notice the difference.”

So for the entire book Sam is struggling with the idea of “manhood”. He is directly and explicitly struggling to understand what is it that makes a boy a man. His brother Jeff and his best friend Sebastian constantly sprout deeply offensive and sexist language when talking about girls. They use gendered insults all the time: “don’t be a pussy Sam”. And Sam – even though he feels uncomfortable hearing those messages – to start with, also uses that language, also refers to girls in a demeaning way. But the more his arc progresses, the more he changes.

He is not completely clueless because the questioning is there from the start as evidenced by the quote above but he is not quite there yet so throughout the book he says horrible things, he thinks sexist thoughts. And this just brings me back to how the narrative does not condone this, because it constantly puts Sam’s – and Jeff’s – ideas in check. And I like how the narrative does allow for sympathy for Sam (as well as for douchebag Jeff) as another boy struggling to break free of internalized sexism. But the point is: he grows out of it. He grows out of it beautifully by learning to respect and love the women in his life. And we are not talking about simply romantic love either although there is some of it. He learns to understand and sympathise with his mother, he forges friendships with other Girls and he falls in love with DeeDee. And love is a HUGE catalyst for change in this book but I really appreciated the way that love is not the end-all/be-all that will solve everybody’s problems. Quite the opposite in fact.

Speaking of Sam’s mom: this is another brilliant aspect of the book for me. Her arc to me, reads as an incredibly feminist arc. To begin with, Sam is the one to describe what happened to his mother and he does so by being completely oblivious: he talks about how his mom one day started going online, becoming addicted to Facebook, then reading the SCUM Manifesto and deciding to take off to Women’s Land to find herself. HE doesn’t understand anything about it. HE thinks his mom is crazy and has destroyed his family. THEN his mother comes back and that’s when his understanding of her takes place and it is beautiful: then we learn that his mother was struggling to understand her own life choices:

“I thought of what my father had said: about the choices she had made and the ones she was still making. She had decided to take action. Even if it had been pointless, even if it had been the wrong thing, even if it had just only led her back to us eventually, it was still action and that counted for something.”

And here is the gist of this book: it’s about choices and identity in a world that often tries to take those away from both women and men. I loved DeeDee and Sam because both are trying so hard to understand themselves and the world they live in. September Girls offers a deeper understanding of love, identity and a constant, non-stop challenge of ideas regarding “masculinity” and “femininity”.

The ending of September Girls is fucking brilliant. It’s bittersweet and fantastic as it brings the curse to its head with a twist about choices and moving on and love. The curse does not work in the way one expects it to work and the ending is so satisfying in the way that it doesn’t play into romantic expectations: love does not save anyone. This is a fairytale but not of the Disney variety (if there was any doubt). The plot itself is a languid, slow-moving summer-like story and I loved it. And now I also want to read everything Bennett Madison has ever written.

It’s a 9 from me and it will definitely be on my top 10 books of 2013.

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28 Responses to September Girls by Bennett Madison: Not a Sexist Book.

  1. Bennett’s book THE BLONDE OF THE JOKE is amazing too. A very underrated gem.

  2. Ana says:

    I just bought it! : D

  3. Aja says:

    this was an excellent, important review and made me excited for the next book i read in a way i haven’t felt in a long time <3

  4. Andrea K says:

    Do you think this is a feminist book primarily intended for a male audience? Because, if I understand your description of the themes, it holds up our patriarchal culture’s treatment of women as Other and Object and emphasises it to such a degree that the reader comes to see the treatment of women as ridiculous, bizarre, contradictory and cruel.

  5. Ana says:

    Aja: THANK YOU

    Andrea: no, I don’t think it is intended primarily for a male audience at all because both Sam and DeeDee share the narrative and both characters undergo change.

    ” it holds up our patriarchal culture’s treatment of women as Other and Object and emphasises it to such a degree that the reader comes to see the treatment of women as ridiculous, bizarre, contradictory and cruel.” <<< YES That was what I took from it. This was an incredibly important book to ME as a woman.

  6. Kaethe says:

    Ana, I really appreciate you taking the time to examine the subject so thoughtfully and thoroughly. I’m going to have to read the book to see what I think of it. The problem I’m having is that even the people who feel it is a strongly feminist book acknowledge that it uses all the baggage of sexism. To me that seems too much like pole-dancing as “empowerment”; the individual sees it as an opportunity to denounce the system, but everyone else still gets to enjoy the benefits of the system guilt free.

    I do think you make a strong argument for your perspective. You’ve convinced me I have to read it and decide, which so far no one else has done.

  7. Gerd D. says:

    Well, I guess you’re probably right by saying that the Author may have wanted to make a point by having his lead be a dick with a dick he’s excessively in love with… but, gee, if I wanted that type of guys talk, I wouldn’t have to waste money on a book, I just needed to listen my work colleagues. :)

  8. Ana says:

    Kaethe and Gerd: I think that by concentrating my review so much on deconstructing the claims of sexism, I forgot to actually talk about the fact that the story is actually much more than that.

  9. Agree with Lenore about THE BLONDE OF THE JOKE – it’s well worth reading.

    Also, Bennett wrote two earlier novels that are teen-girl-detective stories, but they sort of deconstruct the tropes a bit. His teen detective, Lulu Dark, isn’t a fan of girl detectives at all, and can’t think of anything she’d want to become less. Of course, she ends up sleuthing and it’s all great fun. :) I can lend you mine when I see you at the end of the month – they’re out of print, now.

    Kaz

  10. Meghan says:

    Great post. I still don’t think I’ll read it, but I really enjoyed your take. So far, all I have read is a few book bashing reviews and this was a more thorough, balanced review. I could see where the characters were coming from and with the other reviews all I could see was how much the reader hated what they were reading without really examining the point of the book or the author’s intent.

  11. hapax says:

    A very insightful, thoughtful review, and you’ve convinced me that this book can be read this way. Maybe even that it was intended to be read this way.

    Unfortunately, I get inundated with enough hurtful, hostile, damaging misogynistic language from both men and women every day to be ready to wade through an entire book of it just to find out in the end that the characters have “learned better”.

    I’m not denying the value of the journey. I’m just saying that for me, the trip isn’t worth the painful fare, just so the book can end somewhere before where we should all START from.

  12. Ana says:

    Hapax: this is actually a very good reason why not to read the book. I think, I still find a lot of value in the journey and in books like these?

  13. Hmmm…it’s interesting to see the whole debate around this. I think you definitely made a strong argument for a not-sexist reading of the book. It still sounds like Not My Kind of Book, though. If the controversy continues, however, I may have to give in (why I read Twilight)!

  14. Meghan says:

    I love you SO MUCH for articulating everything I felt about this book but was unable to put as well as you did in my own review on FYA. It was hard to not write entirely about the sexism controversy, like you say, and I want to echo your comment that this book is LOVELY in it’s execution and writing.

    I hope you love Blonde of the Joke – it’s delightful and confusing and messy and gorgeous as well. Bennett is marvelous.

  15. Ana says:

    Thanks Meghan, it was your review that made me finally want to read it just to see. so thank YOU

  16. Katrina says:

    Huh. That’s really interesting. I’be only heard about the negative reviews, mostly from those bloggers you mentioned so i stayed away from it. Even the fact that its been blurbed and started reviews from PW, etc, i just kinda ignored it cause sometimes you get these things wrong. But I guess I should’ve not made my own opinions so quickly (it was hard not to but I shouldn’t have) I didn’t read your whole review cause of spoilers but I’m definitely more open to reading it now. I might get around to it eventually. Thanks for the alternative opinion!

  17. Katherine H says:

    Sounds excellent, but I don’t know if I could take Sam as a character seriously at all. The heaviness in his dick thing just sounds hilarious to me XD

  18. Meg says:

    Thank you for this review, it was really thoughtful and informative. I’ve been hearing a lot of negativity about this book which was sad because the premise sounded interesting and I wanted to read it but had nearly written it off entirely. Now I’m thinking I should just go with my original impulse and give it a shot because clearly there is a lot of room for interpretation.

  19. Chachic says:

    I stopped reading at the spoilers mark but just wanted to say that I added this to my wishlist because I saw you talking about it on Twitter. :)

  20. Shaun says:

    I came to this review from Goodreads, where I got so angry I just about deleted my account. The thing that’s most disappointing is how dismissive and cruel the reviewers are being. They denounce the book’s “anti-feminist” themes and misogyny, while engaging in their own form of sexist behavior. One reviewer went on and on about horrible names the characters called girls, and then referred to the narrators father as a pansy in her review. It blew my mind.

    Forget the fact that most of these shameful reviews admit to skimming the book, thus making it likely that they missed the point, they all seem to concentrate on hating the narrator and his attachment to his penis. They pull out the quote about the ocean in his eyes and his dick feeling heavy and use that as evidence that the narrator is just an icky boy and not worth reading about.

    And that makes me ashamed of the YA community. I remember all the rhetoric about how boys should read and appreciate stories about women, and learn to value those stories because they are important. And I agree with that whole-heartedly. Stories written by women and for women that look honestly at what being a woman means are important stories that boys should absolutely read. But then we turn around and take this book about what a god-awful nightmare it is to try to grow into manhood in a world that has such a screwed up idea of what being a man actually means, and dismiss it as trash. As if the stories of boys have no value. What does that say about us? What does that say to boys who might pick this book up? Could it be possible that boys who read this and relate and understand what the narrator is going through and the things the author is trying to say might read these awful, nasty reviews and feel that his stories have no value? That he has no value?

    We read books to understand each other and the world around us, but some of the obnoxious vitriol coming from the YA community about this book is disturbing, and makes me question whether they we really understand anything about each other at all.

    Thanks for writing this review. I only wish more people would read it and understand.

  21. Eliza says:

    Ana – I thought I shouldn’t weigh in here until I’ve read the book. However, I wanted to thank you for your interesting, thoughtful, and balanced review of this divisive book. It must have been a hard one to write. Do you spend the time responding to all the negative comments or ignore them and just discuss the reasons why you loved the book? I can understand why you chose to address the negative reviews but the reasons why you loved this book maybe aren’t reflected in your review as much as they would otherwise be.

    Ignoring all the controversy, this isn’t a book I would have picked up to read but given the glowing reviews by both you and Meghan at FYA, reviewers with whom I share similar taste in books, and Bennett Madison’s thoughtful responses in his interview at Novel Sounds I have to say it’s moved up to my list. Admittedly, not really high on the list but it has made the list. I think this will be a book I read not because I’m dying to read it but because I’m very curious to see what all the fuss (pro & con) is all about.

    Anyway, great review and one that made me curious to read I book that previously I was indifferent about.

  22. [...] rather extreme camps. On the one side, people call it incredibly sexist, and on the other, it is hailed as a wonderfully feminist book that examines gender roles and puts a spin on them. Wait, what? This sounded like something I had [...]

  23. Kate & Zena says:

    I just finished the book last night Ana and I LOVED it. It was beautiful. I completely agreed with everything you said. Sam is this complicated character who is traditional yet untraditional; he’s wrestling with this idea of “what is it to be a man?” especially in today’s society. His father is actually very interesting, especially with what you learn in the end.

    I actually love how the Girls were stereotypes. Sometimes you need a stereotype laid against a complex character to see what’s wrong with society. I was like like, “Go Deedee, go Deedee!” She is amazing.

    I could go on about this book. I sincerely hope he does a sequel so we can find out how Deedee does being “human.” I would love to know if she ever contacts Sam again. There are so many things I want to know!

  24. Ana says:

    Yay! So glad you liked it too.

  25. brandy says:

    it was great

  26. brandy says:

    it was a great book i loved it great

  27. Anonymous says:

    this was my first time reading a love story form a guys perspective. I must say it was very different and weird but I really liked it.

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