Dreams of Significant Girls
by Cristina Garcia
Releases on 07.12.2011
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Source: ARC via book blog tour
REVIEW: This is not a book. Dreams of Significant Girls is a finely crafted vessel, and the story beautifully braids together three different narratives into a single, strong anchor. I didn't want to put it down.
As the synopsis says, the three girls are sent by their families to a premier Swiss boarding school for a summer session. Each girl is sent for a different reason, and each has her own goals and gripes associated with the trip. The three are placed in the same dorm room together, and each fills the space with her personality, culture, interests, and insecurities. The story starts in the summer of 1971, continues into the two summers, with correspondence in between. Each girl takes first-person narration in turn, adding a multi-layered viewpoint and forming a comprehensive coming-of-age picture from three people with very different, but surprisingly relatable, backgrounds.
Shirin: she's deceptively passionate. At first, you would think she is a perfect snob and devoid of personality, but later unfolds with her own strong character, only to be undone when she has to weigh actions done against and by her with her family's culture and expectations. Her life is one of privilege, but privilege isn't protection.
"She turned on her tape deck as loud as it would go. The ear-splitting music filled the room - a fast, grinding guitar accompanied by a voice so low and growling that it was impossible to decipher the words. I immediately thought of my brother Cyrus, unstoppable in his fighter jet, streaking across the sky. Forget the couture party dresses. Forget my matchmaking society mother. Forget teaching math to fidgeting schoolgirls. . . I wanted desperately to fly alongside Cyrus, screaming across the empty blue skies."
-Shirin, Day One
-Shirin, Day One
Ingrid: at first, I had her pegged as a poseur, a small town girl who liked to talk big. Then she backed up her talk with action, and I was dumbfounded. She's boy crazy, not always fair, often selfish, and occasionally, tempts her crueler nature. She also has natural streaks of eccentricity and artistry. She has trouble dealing with her own family and personal issues, but glares unflinchingly at atrocities committed by others. No one lives in the moment and deliberately snuffs out inhibitions quite like she does. She is deeply insecure, and struggles particularly with her feelings over her father's PTSD from his time as a German soldier.
"Why the big separation? Just because we were old enough to get pregnant didn't mean we should be kept apart from the XY chromosomes. Boys made up half the human race, so what was the big fucking deal? To act like they were kryptonite only made things worse. Everyone back home was sure I'd had sex already. I hadn't, but I was determined to that summer. In my experience, grown-ups always kept the best stuff for themselves."
-Ingrid, Day One
-Ingrid, Day One
Vivien: the one I felt closest to. Gentle, but with a solid, stoic character. She bears hardship the best of the three. At the time of their arrival, she had the most struggle in her past, yet she is the least cynical and most optimistic of the three. Her family is earmarked by her father's past as a Holocaust survivor, her mother's richly loving Cuban family, their exodus from
"Sometimes when a phrase in English doesn't make sense to me, I translate it into Spanish. Fiesta de jardin. For me, it's a way of pulling words and meanings apart into their constituent elements, giving them a new context and rhythm. Growing up speaking two languages has come in handy. Not just for whispering secrets, but for cultivating perspective, a certain distance between you and what you're observing. It's like sitting on a stone wall between two countries, two cultures, two gardens, but not fully participating in either."
-Vivien, Day Fourteen
-Vivien, Day Fourteen
When the book begins, the girls are nowhere close to becoming best of friends. Shirin and Ingrid in particular are hostile towards each other. These two are yin and yang to each other, with Vivien often acting as subtle peacemaker and bridge. Then, something salacious happens with Ingrid, and something despicable to Shirin. Especially in Shirin's case, this sets off a series of events and reflections that solidifies their friendship. If that sounds convenient, trust me, the friendship is anything but one of convenience; but, as J.K. Rowling wrote in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, there are some things that you can't walk away from without becoming friends. In that trio's case, it was troll. In this trio's case, it's being witness and a pillar of support to one another's personal demons and heartaches.
I absolutely love the quiet way Garcia makes history present in this story. It's not the story, but it's there as background and context. The characters will mention a current event from those years in passing, and it gives a subtle point-of-reference. Sometimes it's the most casual mention, i.e. at one point, a character mentions the 1972 Olympics in Munich. You know the major event from that event hasn't happened yet by the way she mentions it, but you, the reader, does. It gives the story this tone that the characters themselves aren't aware of yet. It gave me the chills, like I was the seeing the future of their world, but it's the past of our own. It creates a marvelous sense of connection and tension. I think Garcia picked the time and setting of her story with especial care. Each girl comes from family that has been historically displaced or is facing upheaval, both politically and personally. Their personal family histories also give them connections through connections to world history. Each girl comes from a background that forces them to live in a duality, a double-consciousness: Jewish-Cuban-New Yorker, German-Canadian-Small town Girl, and a mixed-heritage-very upper-crust, Iranian Princess. In particular, I feel like I had an advantage with understanding Shirin, since I have several friends and acquaintances who were born and grew up in the States as a direct result of the Iranian Revolution. Knowing their families' histories gave me context for Shirin's character.
It's a fine irony that they all three are put out of their comfort zone in Switzerland, the land of neutrality. For them, it was the Land of Opportunity, a place where they learned what they were made of as individuals. There definitely are moments of, "yeah, right", when reading about the extraordinary opportunities and events that come their ways. At times, it feels like they should be part of fairy tale. I still loved the story, even then - it felt like this is what happens when you take the risk if being true to your own ambitions and sense-of-self. Of course, each girl comes from a well-to-do background, but that was not always the case for two of the girls' families, and will not long be true for the third.
This is the beautiful part of the story: it shows that history is context. It influences your life and gives it background, but what you do with what you are given and the choices you make is your own narrative. We are a part of a world wide diaspora that has always and will always be in motion. These three girls are proof that there are no little neat boxes you can check yourself into in life; you have to create your own world, the one that is significant to you.
The story, setting, everything - it's exquisitely written. You feel like the girls are confiding in you, letting you know about the summers that they count as the most important of their lives. I wish I could articulate all the complexities of this book, but I will say it ranks as one the most intelligent young adult novels I have ever had the pleasure and privilege of reading. When I am lucky enough to read an ARC for tour, it's not often that I feel compelled to own. This absolutely is a book that I will buy once it's released. I want to experience it again. One week was not enough. Dreams of Significant Girls is an unflinching look at the life long process of building who you are and want to be amid the people you share life with. You will be enveloped and captivated by this book. You may not be friends with these three, but you will feel honored to witness their coming-of-age. I highly recommend it.
Extra: Cristina Garcia is prolific writer and had many works. Dreams of Significant Girls is her first young adult novel. Check out her other books and writing at her website.
If you want to get a good sense of Garcia's writing style before this book releases, please pick up her Dreaming in Cuban (GoodReads/Amazon). I read it college 10 years ago and still own my copy. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992.
Please note: I don't normally warn about this, but Garcia is absolutely bare bones honest about each girl's curiosity about sex. This is different in each girl's case, but I did want to make a note that there are some descriptions of sexual acts (and their consequences). If you prefer your YA without mention of sex, this book is not for you. However, I will say that this is a small, but significant part of the total story and encourage you to read this book regardless.