The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sharon Kisses (yep, that's her real name) and Mel Vaught meet in college in upstate New York. Sharon is a reserved, talented girl from a rural Kentucky town. Mel is a out, tough, lesbian from Florida -- all bravado hiding a softer interior. The two form a fast friendship, bonding quickly over their art and their family histories: both come from dysfunctional families who have formed the girls into what they are today. Mel and Sharon pour this into their art, and they become talented animation partners, with their first movie showing a raw, truthful look at Mel's childhood and her mother, a rough woman who ended up in jail. The two are on the cusp of success -- tours, awards, artistic grants. But success comes with an edge: Mel starts drinking and turning to drugs, while Sharon doubts herself and her role in this brilliant duo. Suddenly, however, none of that matters when tragedy strikes the pair, and everything they've known changes in an instant.
This book is insane and amazing. I honestly had no idea what it was about when I started to read it; I surely had read the ARC blurb when I chose it, but had forgotten by the time I began, and the cover art seems to indicate a light-hearted tale about movies and animation. It is not. This is a powerful, gut-wrenching novel that will drag you into its story and characters and eventually spit you out, exhilarated and exhausted. There was so much about this novel I loved and related to: the fast friendship of two girls in college; an actual lead lesbian character (but whose lesbianism wasn't her only defining aspect - how refreshing); Sharon and her doubts and insecurities - the way she feels as if she's disappearing into herself in her thirties; the way Whitaker so easily captured growing up in a rural town (Sharon's Kentucky hometown)... I immediately identified with both characters, although Sharon is our protagonist, and the one telling us our story.
I won't lie to you: this book will make you feel uncomfortable. It's not a fun read, or really even a pleasant one. It's not a "feel good novel." It hurts--physically hurts--to read this book. Some of the novel is uneven, and it jumps around a bit. This is Whitaker's first novel, and I think she's only going to get more amazing as she goes, because you can look past this, and see so much power and force in this book. It's raw. It's the story of a friendship, and it's told so beautifully that you are completely drawn into Mel and Sharon's world. When you read this book, there is really nothing else going on in your life but this novel. Mel and Sharon are real, you love them, and you can see them in your mind. (I saw Mel as Kate McKinnon, despite the references to Lori Petty.) The storyline, for me, was unexpected, and, as I said, jumped a bit, but it worked. I had one issue with the end (a bit of a cliche about straight/lesbian friendship, but I won't go into it much, for spoiler reasons), but otherwise, found this novel to be energetic and forceful. It's dark, it's an ode to art and friendship and life, it's deep - I really have no words. It will take you to an exposed place inside of yourself, but you'll be glad it did.
I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 1/31/2017.
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