Bennett Madison's SEPTEMBER GIRLS seems to be a book that people either love or hate. Having read, I can see why there is such a strong divide--it's not an easy read, and Madison puts the reader deep into the mind of his teen protagonist--but I'm in camp Love. This book floored me. Truly. It is a strange, powerful, haunting little story, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to do it justice. After his mother bails, Sam's father drags him and his brother to the beach for the summer. A beach that just happens to be populated by gorgeous girls who all take a strong interest in Sam, and who have a terrible, heavy secret.
Having read a bunch of reviews, it's obvious this book has rubbed quite a few readers the wrong way. I've seen it called sexist and misogynistic, but I didn't have that experience with the novel. I had quite the opposite. I thought this book touched upon some complex societal issues in an incredibly powerful way. In my opinion, it questions what it really means to "be a man," and shows us just how damning the objectification of women is in our current culture.The girls in this novel are cursed by their father. They are many (therefore their mother is a "whore") and they come to the beach (from the sea) without an identity. They have no names or home. They are trapped at the beach until they break the curse, which they can only do by getting a virgin to sleep with them. And so their entire life is spent building their personality and appearance around what can attract one of these boys. They are all competing for him, making each girl an enemy of sorts to the other. They are also at the mercy of the male, because they can't speak to the virgin unless he speaks to them first. Their lives and future are defined by men.
It's horrible and cruel and oppressing and unfair and I think that's the point. I think we--as readers--are supposed to see just exactly how f*ed up this is, and be angry. With the girls's father. With the curse. With the beach, and how Sam can free one of them if he chooses, but also how gross and disturbing and wrong it all feels.
What's even more maddening is when we realize that our culture--sometimes subliminally, sometimes very bluntly--bestows this same curse upon girls: You are nothing without a man. If you're not pretty, you won't get him. But don't obsess over your shoes or jewelry--so girly to care about shiny things. And stop obsessing over your weight and skin and boob size. How vain!
What makes this book so powerful is that Sam and DeeDee (the girl he begins spending time with) recognize exactly how messed up this is. DeeDee manages to form friendships with the other girls. She questions the definition of "ho" and "whore" and if the label even matters. She has her own opinions, and she isn't afraid to call bullshit on others. Also, Sam rejects the entire idea that "manhood" can be defined simply by losing your virginity. Manhood, he decides, cannot just be found, and it certainly can't be taken. There is more to "being a man" than doing the one thing society has told us is the most manly of all. (He is so right, and it's incredibly moving. Made me think of this amazing spoken word piece, Man Up.)
The relationship these two teens forge is honest and difficult. The ending is bittersweet. There's great secondary characters too--Sam's brother (an ass, who at least has some growth, and who Sam realizes is an ass) and mother (who shows that feminism can mean many things--leaving, returning, family, independence.) I feel like I could write an essay on this novel, but I won't. Besides, the Book Smugglers already have a fantastic analysis on the story that I'm not sure I could top.
SEPTEMBER GIRLS is magical realism at its finest. It's complex and fantastical and familiar all at once. It holds a mirror up to our culture and lets us draw our own conclusions. It brings out strong emotions and sparks conversation. I've been thinking about this book since I put it down, and I have a feeling I won't soon stop.