What Girls Are Made Of

"Sugar and spice and everything nice / that's what little girls are made of."

This rhyme was obviously written by a man who likes his ladies subservient, bland, and about as threatening as a wobbly blancmange pudding.  The kind of man who takes advantage of girls every chance he gets, and then blames them for being easy or loose or just too tempting.

I did not think that Elana K. Arnold's writing could surpass the pitch-black brilliance of Infandous, but, well, here we are.  I am once again stunned.  This has some of the most frank yet sensitive talk about Pap smears, birth control, abortion, and sex that I've ever read.  Arnold ruthlessly exposes the injustices and cruelty that girls rationalize as normal, and leaves the reader just a little bit broken inside.

Nina loves Seth.  She must, right?  She's his girlfriend.  She's had sex with him.  Against her own better judgment, she's fallen for him.  Seth is gorgeous and sly and ... he's a really awful boyfriend.

Nina's mother has told her that there is no such thing as unconditional love.  With a snap of her fingers, she could stop loving her daughter.  Nothing is promised or absolute.  Everything is loss.  The loss of all the babies before Nina, and the loss of all the babies who came after.

But when Nina refuses to pass some sort of obscure Seth man-test--when she refuses to shed her own skin completely in order to be subsumed by him, he casts her aside.  And Nina is pregnant.

Nina is very lucky--she is a girl who can afford to make informed choices.  And her choice to have a medical abortion, her choice to get an implant as birth control, and her choice to ask herself what she wants and what she desires model the choices that all women should have.  We don't.  For so many people on this earth, the worst thing they could be is not a Nazi or a terrorist or a murderer or a rapist: it's a woman.  We are held to an impossible double standard and punished for our existence.

Interspersed with Nina's personal narrative is her English project: a chronicle of female saints.  Unfortunately, in order to be a saint, you have to be dead, and generally the gruesomer said death, the saintlier the saint.  Nina chronicles the women who defied patriarchal norms by choosing their own beliefs over the desires of a man.  By honoring their own bodies.  By affirming their faith.  And soon, this chronicle is not only about women who have lived and died, but about a girl who was cocooned in a shell, half-grown and underdeveloped.  Viewed as a delicacy to be consumed by men.

With one crack of the egg, everything changes.  With one choice, we can be reborn.  Wobbly on our spindly legs at first, wet and weak-looking.  But we feather our nests with lessons learned and choices dared, and we grow.  And we fly.

There is no one right way to be a girl.  I might not have made some of the choices Nina did, but that doesn't make her wrong or me wrong.  We are both girls, finding out what we are made of.

I received an ARC of this title from Edelweiss.


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