Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
Imaginary Girls came to my attention when it was reviewed by Becky at Active Voice. I’m not sure if it was the cover or Ruby’s charisma, but it ended up on my list. (I have to admit, young adult covers are almost uniformly gorgeous; I don’t know if it’s because publishers think teenagers will flee at the sight of an ugly book or narrow margins, but I do wish they’d take such care with adult fiction from time to time. It only seems fair.) As I rounded out March, it seemed the least threatening out of the intimidating pile of library books I had accumulated, and I picked it up.
Imaginary Girls is the story of Chloe and Ruby, two sisters who love each other more than life itself. Their life in their small, upstate New York town is pretty much perfect, given Ruby’s status as the it girl around town—everyone wants to love her or be her, but they can’t. But their life is shattered when, on a swim in the forbidden reservoir, Chloe discovers the corpse of a fellow student, London. Chloe is shuffled off to Pennysylvania to live with her father, but after two years, Ruby manages to get her back, hellbent on getting back to the way things were. But Chloe is no longer just Ruby’s little sister and her eyes are open—open to the threat of the reservoir, open to her sister’s strange influence over their hometown, and open to the girl who should be dead…
Becky’s review focuses on the relationship between the sisters, which is really what the novel focuses on. Ruby is everything to Chloe, so much so that the two years she spends away from her sister go by in scant paragraphs. And, in return, Chloe is everything to Ruby; she’ll do absolutely anything for her. But it’s absolutely clear who is the dominant one in this relationship and who is (or should be) the submissive one. In a weird way, it put me in mind of Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea, where we encounter a friendship composed of the leading Cal and the following Jason. But while that novel focuses on Jason losing Cal, this novel focuses on Chloe losing her childhood image of Ruby. No matter how much she wants things to be the same, she—and Ruby—have changed. In a way, it does what the best speculative fiction does; the fantastical trappings are a means to get at the deeper emotional truths of Chloe and Ruby’s relationship, which are beautifully rendered. Neither girl is all good or all bad—they’re both complex, even if Ruby can be unfathomable to Chloe.
And yes, speculative fiction it is. That’s not a spoiler, because there’s definitely something out of whack in their hometown and Chloe’s homecoming involves meeting a girl who should be dead. However, it’s still ambiguous for most of the novel, until, at the end, it becomes very unambiguous, bringing in the story of the drowned town of Olive, upon which their hometown’s reservoir sits. And I didn’t care for that. I had the same reaction to ambiguous supernatural elements becoming unambiguous at the end in Jo Walton’s Among Others, and I think, in both cases, it’s because a lack of establishment. What Ruby can do makes perfect sense; we’ve been seeing it being done the entire novel. But the inclusion of Olive, while definitely brought up a few times, didn’t feel as linked to the rest of the narrative. And it’s a large part of the ending, so I’m not sure why it’s not woven as neatly in. While the supernatural elements are being used to underscore and explore Ruby and Chloe’s relationship, I was still disappointed by how unconnected they were. It definitely feels like supernatural fiction being written from someone on the outside, rather than someone who has spent a lot of time in the genre.
And that all makes for a mildly disappointing ending. I did like the ending—the last chapter is haunting and horrifying, or would be if the ambiguity had been maintained instead of removed. But it feels compressed, which is something that plagues the novel. I’m not sure if it’s a choice by the author, a function of the narrative (which mostly happens in their hometown), or a side effect of the usual frenetic clip I associate with young adult fiction, but it kept me from enjoying the book as much as I wanted to. I don’t think this one is going to be sticking with me.
Bottom line: Imaginary Girls is a supernatural horror story about two sisters who love each other more than anything. While the core relationship is rendered beautifully and complexly, the supernatural elements aren’t well-established and lose much of their punch when they lose their ambiguous status. A positive eh!
I rented this book from the public library.