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What Girls Learn: A Novel

What Girls Learn: A Novel

4.0 28
by Karin Cook

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radiant debut novel, What Girls Learn takes readers on an intimate and haunting journey into the landscape of girlhood and the complex terrain of the family. Wise, bittersweet, and above all intensely human, this astonishingly powerful novel enchants readers with its humor and insight even as it breaks their hearts.

From the Hardcover edition.


radiant debut novel, What Girls Learn takes readers on an intimate and haunting journey into the landscape of girlhood and the complex terrain of the family. Wise, bittersweet, and above all intensely human, this astonishingly powerful novel enchants readers with its humor and insight even as it breaks their hearts.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Marcy Jane Knopf
Karin Cook's compelling first novel leaves readers with a sense of the truths and half-truths adolescent girls learn, know, and want to comprehend. Cook's lyrical novel [is] one of the most mesmerizing and moving narratives written on female adolescence, breast cancer, [and] mother-daughter relationships. -- Lesbian Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Mama raised us to be just." Tilden, the teenaged narrator of this engaging and moving first novel, tells the story of life with her beautiful mama, Frances, who has always been a romantic spirit. Tilden and her younger sister, Elizabeth, are uprooted from Atlanta to New York when Frances, a divorce, meets Nick and they move to his home on Long Island. Tilden fears not fitting into her new environment and, indeed, on the first day of school her classmates demand to hear her "talk Southern.'' Soon, however, she has a far more wrenching problem-her mother finds a lump in her breast that proves cancerous. Despite a courageous attempt to fight her disease and Nick's valiant support, Frances slides inexorably toward death. Tilden is a gem of a character, navigating all the complexities of adolescent friendships, sibling rivalry and burgeoning sexuality while dealing with her mother's illness. The details of Frances's decline are an undercurrent to the minutiae of daily life as filtered through a young girl's perceptions. Cook writes clean and direct prose, infused with just the right amount of the aggressive innocence and lyricism with which adolescents often see the world. Only occasionally does Tilden's wisdom seem artificial, the sage intrusion of some older voice. But because Cook has firm and restrained control of her material, the novel succeeds in avoiding the clichs of its potentially melodramatic subject matter. Cook's clear eye is unclouded by false sentimentality, and her ear is keenly pitched to domestic dialogue. An auspicious debut. (Mar.)
VOYA - Faye Powell
A year-and-a-half in the lives of two sisters, Tilden, twelve, and Elizabeth, eleven, born exactly one year, two weeks, and twelve hours apart, is the subject of this novel. Tilden and Elizabeth possess all the characteristics of pubescent girls, yet they are as different from one another as one day to the next, inside and out. The sisters recall spending their lives with only their loving mother, who has moved them from one place to another as life directed her. Their moves were never motivated by men in the past, until Nick Olsen came along. Suddenly, without notice (as usual), they are packing to go live with him. Their lives are turned upside down as their mother begins to share her love with this stranger and makes him part of the family-they are taken from the sunny South to the fast-moving, cold North; their relationships with everyone, especially each other, become hostile; their thirty-year-old uncle comes to live with them; and worst of all, toward the end of the book their mother gets cancer and dies, leaving them, in Tilden's view, with strangers. Sexual play and innuendo become a major part of the narrative about halfway through, making the story realistic as it relates to the experiences of girls this age. Tilden spends the night with a family that dwells on sexual word play and sex jokes. The girls encounter a motorist seeking directions, who turns out to be an exhibitionist. Tilden has an incestuous encounter, involving touching, with her Uncle Rand. The emotional roller coaster and honest ride on which this story takes readers make it just right for girls who are mature and perceptive enough to identify and grasp the reasons for the fervent battles between the sisters, as they try to understand what is happening around them. They are angry with their mother for being sick, for being secretive with them about her illness, and for keeping them on the outside, and they resent the other adults who have come between them and their mother. Readers will feel as frustrated by this heart-rending story as Tilden and Elizabeth are while they attempt to deal with each other, their own individual development (they each turn a year older in the story), their mother's illness, questions about the life their mother shared with their father-whom they have never known-and the many changes affecting them. This is a book for girls, and those who read it are likely to be filled with questions. There is plenty here to fuel discussion, and younger, less mature YAs-especially those who identify with the sisters-might require that; older teen readers will likely be more inclined to work through the questions and frustration on their own. VOYA Codes: 5Q 2P J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written, For the YA with a special interest in the subject, Junior High-defined as grades 7 to 9 and Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).
School Library Journal
YATeens will need a box full of tissues when they dive into this emotionally involving debut novel. Teetering on the brink of adolescence, narrator Tilden and her slightly younger sister Elizabeth are initially wary when their mother, a hopelessly romantic optimist, moves the small family from Atlanta to suburban Long Island to be with her new beau, Nick. Tilden has some difficulties adjusting to the changes in her life, but Elizabeth jumps right in with her new, fast crowd and never looks back. Tilden is finally beginning to feel more comfortable when she is faced with the unconquerableher mother finds a lump in her breast and fails quickly despite aggressive treatment. Cook has a deft touch in capturing the domestic dialogue of family life, the alternating innocence and wiseass cynicism of preteens, and the ache of a mother who tried to do the best for her girls. Tilden is a delightful character as she lurches through the uncertainty of constantly shifting friendships and venomous sibling spats just like any typical adolescent. Mature readers will detect the glimmer of humor under the sadness of this grieving family.Susan R. Farber, Ardsley Public Library, NY
Kirkus Reviews
From the Brooklyn-based Cook, an earnest coming-of-age tale featuring two sisters from Atlanta whose mother dies of breast cancer—standard first-novel fare that never provokes, never offends, and never sparks much interest, either.

Twelve-year-old Tilden has always been a quiet observer, lingering on the edge of the more vibrant world inhabited by her prettier younger sister, Elizabeth, and by Frances, their optimistic, homily-spouting, divorced mother. When Frances returns home to Atlanta from a wedding up north, Tilden watches anxiously as a flurry of romantic correspondence with a man she met there turns into yet another move. Happily, though, this journey to Nick Olsen's home on Long Island turns out to be a healthy one: Nick, the owner of a limousine service, is a good guy who helps the girls with their homework, cleans up around the house, and works hard to live up to his new role of substitute dad. The girls' adjustment to this new life would appear relatively painless, in fact, if it weren't for Frances's discovery of a lump in her breast, her subsequent mastectomy, and her lingering death over the course of Tilden's 13th year—an event that leaves the two girls with no one to look after them but bumbling Nick. This bomb dropped into the center of Tilden's life might be expected to cause some interesting shock waves, but in fact the adults who surround Tilden and Elizabeth prove so adept at helping the girls adjust to the pain of losing their beloved mother that there's little doubt they'll land on their feet. Even when Frances's no-account brother, Rand, turns up for a visit and makes a half-hearted sexual pass at Tilden, he so deeply regrets his transgression that there's nothing for the reader to sink her teeth into.

In the end, this drama remains, like its sturdy heroine, well- intentioned but bland.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

What People are Saying About This

Kaye Gibbons
By turns wry, heartbreaking, and wise, this is a wonderful novel mothers and daughters should read together.
—(Kaye Gibbons, author of Ellen Foster)

Meet the Author

Karin Cook graduated from Vassar College and the Creative Writing Program at New York University.  An activist and health educator, she currently lives and works in New York City where she is the development office at The Door, a multiservice youth center.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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What Girls Learn 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read this book many times and each time I seem to cry a little bit more. Maybe I'm just a ridiculously pathetic person or maybe it's because each time I read it, it becomes more real then the last time. People may not like it and that's to bad that they can't see it for the work of art it really is. This book is true to growing up a teenage girl in the midst of a family crisis.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Procession provides a better ending to the novel because the girls are finally able to accept their Mama's death. Elizabeth and Tilden show that they are going to be able to take care of each other and they fulfill their Mama's wish of appreciateing their sisterhood. Procession brings the novel full circle because it began with the three girls together and it ends with the three of the girls together, but now Tilden is leading them on a new adventure. The girls come to terms with their future and now know that they have to look out for one another because their Mama will no longer be physically able to. The end of this chapter has 'an airy open feeling of potential' (298). The reader feels resolution because he/she knows that the girls will be able to move on and that they will always have the presense of their mother with them in their hearts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think that Procession gives the novel more resolution than Memory and I do not think that both chapters are needed for a conclusion. Procession provides the acceptance of Mama's death and fulfills Mama's wish that the girls take care of eachother. The chapter Procession also brings the book full circle because in the beginning it was just the three of them and in the end it is Tilden, Elizabeth, and Mama's urn that are still together but now Tilden is in the driver's seat. The girls know that they can't physically be with Mama anymore, but they know that they will always have the spirit of Mama with them and the memory of her forever. Procession is a better resolution to the novel because it also ends the book on a positive note because Tilden feels 'an airy open feeling of potential' (298), and that shows that Mama's saying of 'just wait and see' is true because the girls are going to end out on top.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this story about the struggles that many girls have to endure while growing up. It surprised me that the book had two endings; I really felt that Procession would have been a more appropriate true ending to the novel. This is where the novel is tied together. Tilden, Elizabeth, and Frances' stories come together in the car here, whereas Memory focuses more on Tilden's personal struggles after her mother's death. I also noticed that in Procession the chapter ends as the entire novel began. The three women all together driving in the car really sums up the themes of family and companionship that are apparent throughout the entire novel. Memory almost seemed more like it could be a beginning to a sequel to this story. I think that Memory would make an excellent opening chapter to a story written about Tilden's life after her mother's death.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a phenominal novel about girls and their mothers, about sibling rivalry and kinship, about the mysterious tug between love and antagonism that lies at the heart of every family. The last chapter, memory is a great ending to the novel. It not only provides the two main characters views on the death of their mother but also recalls the way their mother will be remebered. After an event as devestating as the death of a mother a reader can only guess what feelings and emotions go through someones head. Memory makes such a great ending because it clears that unfathomed terain. The novel ends with the memory of their mother that will shape them throughout their lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading What Girls Learn, I was faced with the question of which of the last two chapters was the true or better ending? Both chapters, 'Procession' and 'Memory' brought a sense of closure to the novel, but I would have to say that 'Procession' was more successful in creating a resolution. This novel was very heartfelt and emotional, and it really portrayed the bond between a mother and her two beautiful daughters. The novel opened with the three Burbank girls (Tilden, Elizabeth and Frances)together and it showed how amazing of a relationship the three girls had. They were very comfortable around each other, and the reader could easily distinguish just how much they relied on eachother for motivation, support, love and care. They made eachother whole, and I noticed that at the end of 'Procession', the three Burbank girls were together, once again. The ending of that chapter correlated with the beginning of the novel, and it made a great connection. The chapter 'Procession' showed that the girls were obviously deeply saddened by their mother's death, but they also realized that their mother, Frances, would have wanted them to continue on with their lives. In this chapter, Tilden and Elizabeth are getting ready for their first day back to school. Their whole summer was spent caring after their sick mother, almost in anticipation and fear of her soon-to-come death. When Frances finally passed away, the girls only had eachother to lean on and support. Their relationship really grew and became stronger in 'Procession' as they helped prepare each other for their new year at school. They knew and understood that they had to keep moving and continuing with their life. It was as if a chapter in their life had closed, and a new chapter was just beginning. The chapter ends with Tilden driving her mom's car, with Elizabeth in the passenger seat, and their mom's ashes in between them. The joy ride gave them a sense of freedom, and it allowed them to believe in the idea of potential for continuing on with life. Tilden took on a new role, and almost matured greatly overnight. The 'three' Burbank girls drove off into the night, together...again...just as the novel had began. It was a very touching and moving moment. 'Procession' would have made a great ending to the novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Because there are two different plot lines in the novel, there are also two different endings. I think the chapter Procession is very significant because it shows that Tilden and Elizabeth have stopped fighting over their differences and learned to cherish their friendship as sisters. The book begins with the mother and the two daughters together, and as Procession closes, they are together again. Throughout the story there are many conflicts and unanswered questions but at the end of this chapter the reader feels satisfied and happy with the fact that the girls are accepting their sisterhood and doing what Mama had always wanted - getting along. I think the chapter Procession is the better of the two endings because it shows the resolution of the sisters' relationship and how they learn and grow together.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I feel that although the double-ending concept is confusing at first, it really brings complete closure to the book. They seem to have nothing to do with each other, however, that is the way it was intended (in my opinion). In the novel, Cook weaves two separate plot lines together to give one overall feeling to the book. That feeling is one of reality; it is a feeling that is mixed between two opposite emotions and is full of uncertainty. One ending sums up the main character's ordeal with her mother, and the other sums up her journey through her teenage years. By giving two endings that convey two different feelings Cook is continuing this idea of two plot lines. Personally, I think that the way the end of the novel was structured brings proper closure to all areas of the book and leaves the reader questioning what the main character is really thinking (just like the character herself does not know what will become of her future). But, I gave the book three stars because I did not find it that interesting or unique.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a teenager I loved Judy Blume's ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME MARGARET. Tilden, the young main character in WHAT GIRLS LEARN, reminded me so much of Margaret. There were many aspects of her life that she was dealing with on top of puberty and becoming a young adult. She struggled and triumphed. Loved the book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book for school and absoloutly loved! It really helped me understand some points of adolesence. My own mother being a survivor of brain cancer, I could relate to the story very well. I would recomend this book to all girls of all ages!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a favorite!! It gave a good view into a girls mind and had a good story line, it didnt get boing once!! A heart warming tale, although a little of a tear jerker, should be on everyones list.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm amazed with Ms. Cook's ability to capture, so eloquently, the voice of adolescence. A moving read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book for women of all ages. It brought back many memories of growing up. It was a pleasant surprise!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wonderful, I didn't want to put it down. It's clear, concise, truthful writing at its best. Believable and heart-wrenching.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! It is a true story and it is very emotional! I could not put this book down and finished it very quickly. I am 13, and i can realate to many of the topics this book covered. This is my faviorate book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't really know how to rate it because I did not read the book ,but I am planning on buying the book so I can read it .Then I will see if my rating was right.Rachel
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am not an advid reader, however, stumbling into this book was an awarding experience. This book is an emotional rollercoaster; it takes you through the life-journey of a mother and her two daughters. I highly recommend this book for any female (or male) to read!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first read this book when I was thirteen, and just finished it for the second time now at fourteen. The book hits home in so many aspects for me. Peer pressure, being in the shadow of someone better than you...But it made me cherish my mother more than ever. One of the few books that has made me cry. It's my favorite, plain and simple.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm a 14 year girl. As I read this book I realized how much I could relate it to my life. With all the pressure of pot, sex, and alcohol at school, this book, I felt, could really relate to my life. Each character represented a part of me; wheter it be a friend, family member, or a part of my own self. This book was exceptionally well written. I would recommend it to ANYBODY. Not just teeange girls, and not just girls. The joys and pains of this book make it life-like and a page turning book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Noticed a book review in Glamour Magazine and decided to get it. I was sure glad that I did.I couldn't put it down and enjoyed the reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am left nearly speechless. What Girls Learn is the most powerful and amazing novel I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I was sad to see it come to an end, for I felt as though I had lost a friend in Tilden. I am eager for Karin Cook to come out with her next book; her writing style is flawless.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book to read. It accurately describes life as a pre-teen, and is very realistic. I would recommend this book to teens, but not to young girls. Some material may be inappropriate.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel was defenitly a girl book. I really enjoyed it and could relate to a lot of it, being a teenage girl. Some negatives were that at times I had a hard time getting into my reading. Each time I picked up the book it was a little slow, then after a few pages I got into the story and enjoyed it. I also really liked the story, but it was fairly predictable. I still got very emotional about the end, though. It is a quite accurate about the feelings of teenage girls while growing up. The ending was pretty heartbreaking, so beware. I think it opens your eyes to appreciating things that are often taken for granted, such as family, your childhood, and especially the relationship between a mother and daughter. The ending was typical, but still good. It defenitly served its purpose of making you feel the same emotions as the girl going through the ordeal does in the book. All in all I really liked the book and would recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After finishing the novel, I understand that this story essentially contained two plots. One plot was about what girls experience in the process of growing up. The other plot was about the different levels of experience these little girls go through in the process of losing their mother to cancer. I believe that the chapter 'Procession' was essentially the resolution to the plot regarding girls growing up, whereas the chapter 'Memory' served as the resolution to the plot regarding losing a mother. I personally feel that 'Procession' was the true resolution of the novel because it brought both ideas/plots together. The two sisters found closure in the chapter of 'Procession' when they took one last drive together with their mother. The oldest daughter, Tilden, took her mother's place in the driver's seat, symbolically showing how she has grown into a responsible young woman. Also, it shows how the two daughters have already begun to live out their mother's wish, because they have come together and learned how to respect and love one another. Tilden shows how much she cares about her sister and how she has taken her mother's place as her youmger sister, Elizabeth's caretaker. She is more respectful and loving to her and helps her get ready for her first day of Junior High School the next day. Elizabeth also shows how she has beome closer to her sister when she tells Tilden that she never really hated her. This is her way of showing that she truly loves Tilden and that since their mother's death she has realized that they must take care of each other now. I feel that this chapter brings the most closure the novel, whereas the chapter 'Memories' is a chapter which expresses how Tilden is dealing with the loss of her mother a few more years down the road.