Review: What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold

The back cover blurb for What Girls Are Made Of doesn’t give much away, appearing deceptively simple and almost indistinguishable from other contemporary romances on YA shelves these days. But perhaps that should be the reader’s first clue: a woman’s story is never simple. It is complex; it is authentic; it is powerful. Eschewing any form of sugarcoating, this novel takes an honest and visceral look at what it means to be female and held under modern society’s scrutiny and judgment. Warning: it can be triggering.

Nina Faye has never forgotten her mother’s admonition that no love is unconditional. She has taken it to heart, as she watches her parents’ relationship fall apart, as she navigates the commerce of her first romance. Sex and affection are currency tied to a woman’s worth, whether that woman is a teenager who finds herself in an examination room with her feet in plastic stirrups or a virgin martyr who is tortured in life and rewarded in the Catholic hereafter.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are short stories of birds and saints—the birds from Nina’s magical realism English class portfolio; the saints from flashbacks of an impromptu vacation to Italy with her mother. On this trip, Nina muses, “We saw other things, beautiful things, life-affirming things, but the beautiful things were slippery, sliding through me and away. The ugly stuff had hooks and claws and teeth, and it became part of me.” That’s Arnold’s writing right there. Her storytelling is so masterful, her language so rich, that it’s no wonder that this was a finalist for 2017’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Nina, for all her faults and weaknesses, is a vivid character, and Arnold deals with Nina’s thoughts and emotions with sensitivity but far less subtlety than what I’m used to in young adult novels.

The novel can be polarizing, though one thing that fans and critics can agree on is that it is unapologetic. While young adult literature has always been fertile ground for stories that tackle pressing social issues, many of these stories are cautious in their depiction of things that are unpleasant. In novels like those, naiveté is harmful but fixable, and hope can be a palpable thing. Here,  no one can accuse Arnold of romanticizing Nina’s plight. No one is going to make a Disney musical out of her life. What Girls Are Made Of is willing to acknowledge the ‘ugly’ and uncomfortable parts of being a girl by putting not just Nina’s bodily functions on display, but also her hungers and her jealousies and her disingenuousness. At the same time, it also talks about loyalty and compassion and females who can stick up for each other and acknowledge another woman’s struggle. And strength, most of all. Like I said, complex things, these women’s stories.

Nina’s mother may have changed her daughter’s life with her views on unconditional love, but she also imparts this gem: “As long as there have been women […] there have been ways to punish them for being women.” You may not end up liking this book, and that’s okay. But pick it up and judge it after you’ve spent some time with it. This woman’s story deserves your consideration.

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