Everyone is talking about American Girls!
An ALA Booklist Top 10 First Novel
A Kirkus Best Book of the Year
A Barnes & Noble Best YA Book of the Year
A Chicago Public Library Best of the Best of 2016
A Los Angeles Public Library Best Book of the Year 2016
A Bustle Best YA Book of the Year
Anna is a fifteen-year-old girl slouching toward adulthood, and she's had it with her life at home. So Anna "borrows" her stepmom's credit card and runs away to Los Angeles, where her half-sister takes her in. But LA isn't quite the glamorous escape Anna had imagined.
As Anna spends her days on TV and movie sets, she engrosses herself in a project researching the murderous Manson girlsand although the violence in her own life isn't the kind that leaves physical scars, she begins to notice the parallels between herself and the lost girls of LA, and of America, past and present.
In Anna's singular voice, we glimpse not only a picture of life on the B-list in LA, but also a clear-eyed reflection on being young, vulnerable, lost, and female in Americain short, on the B-list of life. Alison Umminger writes about girls, violence, and which people society deems worthy of caring about, which ones it doesn't, in a way not often seen in YA fiction.
“Messy, honest, and unflinchingly real. I can't get this book out of my head. I don't want to get this book out of my head.” Becky Albertalli, author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
“An extraordinary book that shines a light on parts of the American experience we often overlook. Rich, complex, emotionally nuanced, wise, and layered.” Jeff Zentner, author of The Serpent King
“Funny, sad, often surprising, and just damned authentic.” emily m. danforth, author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post
“A razor-sharp commentary on our culture, observed with keen wit from the perspective of one honest and complex American girl.” Kirkus, starred review
“Bittersweet and true, Anna's journey to self-discovery is one that should be widely read.” ALA Booklist, starred review
“Reveals richly complicated relationships among mothers, daughters, and sisters.” Publishers Weekly, starred review
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Alison Umminger
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 Alison Umminger
All rights reserved.
I would never have gone after my mother with a knife, not while a credit card was cleaner and cut just as deep. It's not like I was going after her at all — mostly, what I wanted was to get as far away from her as possible, and her wife's wallet was sitting on the dining room table with the mail, just waiting to be opened. A person can only take so much. My mom had saged the house the week before and told me that she couldn't even enter my room, the energy was so vile. She spent all her time with my new baby brother, talking about how he was the real reason she must have been put on this earth, that the universe was giving her a "do-over," which made me what? A "do-under"? Once I added in the whole nightmare at Starbucks the week before — where my parents sat me down and put a price on my future like they were getting ready to list me on eBay — it seemed to me more likely that she wanted me to take the credit card. Was begging, even.
My sister, Delia, an actress in Los Angeles, told me last summer that everyone needs a "thing." She's beautiful, with silver-gray eyes and ink-black hair that goes halfway down her back, and a voice that sounds like she makes dirty phone calls for a living. She was almost cast as a Bond girl, but she told me that beauty isn't enough. Everyone here is gorgeous, she said, so you have to figure out something else. You've got to be good at at least two things, and known for one. She's a decent gymnast and can still cartwheel on a balance beam, so being able to do her own stunts is her "thing." I visited her last summer, and she took me to a boutique in Santa Monica and helped me pick out a new pair of glasses for when I started high school. It is safe to say that being beautiful is not what I am going to be known for, but she told me that with the right glasses I could rule the world of "nerd chic." I think she forgot that nerds are not, nor will they ever be, chic in Atlanta, or maybe in any high school in America. I bought a pair of thick black frames that you normally see on blind old men and wore the reddest lip gloss my mom would let me leave the house with. Flawless, my sister had said. Very French. The only person who noticed my makeover was my best friend, Doon, and she pointed out that I had lip gloss on my teeth. I didn't get beat up, but I didn't get asked to homecoming, either. I think my sister forgot that I don't live in a movie, or even in France.
Stealing, contrary to my mother's latest take on me, is not my "thing." Now, if you asked my mother, she would probably make me out to be a criminal of the first order. To hear her tell it, I'm no better than those actresses who shoplift from Saks and whine on the news about being bored with their lives. Blah, blah, blah, You can't be trusted. She was actually crying when my sister gave me her phone at the airport. Blah, blah, blah, How could you have violated Lynette's privacy like that? (Ummmm. Easy?) Blah, blah, blah, I wish I'd known more about how I was raising you when I was doing it. Like I'm some kind of paragraph she wishes she could delete and rewrite, but she already accidentally e-mailed it to the world.
The good thing is that I was now in Los Angeles, while my mother was still in Atlanta with her awful wife and my new brother, Birch. How? my mother asked. How did anyone let a girl who's barely fifteen through security at the Atlanta airport? Are you on drugs?
She yelled at my sister for a while, who pulled the phone away from her ear and stage-whispered with her hand half covering the receiver, "Don't think this means you're not in a huge pile of shit, Anna. Because you are."
But huge piles of shit are relative, and it was hard to feel threatened in the Hollywood Hills, not in my sister's apartment, at any rate, which was all mirrors and white light. The space was carefully underfurnished. The living room had a Zen fountain, an oversize white sofa, a coffee table, and not much else. The doors between the living room and bedroom were translucent, and they slid to open. Her bedroom was like a crash pad from The Arabian Nights, with embroidered pillows and velvet curtains and a bed that sat close to the floor. I think if my sister were less pretty, her apartment would have seemed kind of ridiculous — there were too many pillows and candles in the bedroom and too few decent snack-food choices in the kitchen for your standard-issue human being. Instead, it felt like the inside of some Egyptian goddess's sanctuary, full of perfumes you could only buy in Europe, expensive makeup in black designer cases, and underwear that was decidedly nonfunctional. It had crossed my mind that my sister might be a slut, but a really nice-smelling, clean, and carefully closeted slut. Even I knew better than to ask if that's one of the two other "things" that she was good at, though Doon and I had some theories.
"Can we go shopping tomorrow?" I asked.
"Are you deaf? You're in some serious trouble," my sister said. Then she laughed a little; she couldn't help herself. "So you stole Lynette's credit card."
"I didn't steal it."
"Have you considered law school? You stole the number."
"I used the number," I said, annoyed that she even wanted to talk about it. "It was under five hundred dollars."
She kept an eye on me like I might make a break for the door as she leveled green powder and yogurt into a blender. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Greens and probiotics," she said. "Fish oil, B vitamins, acai berry juice, and herbs from my Chinese doctor. It's like licking the bottom of a compost pile, so let's hope it's doing something besides bankrupting me."
Dramatic, my sister. But at least she makes money for it.
"And don't change the subject. You could have gotten nabbed by some pervert. Mom was scared to death. Oh yeah, roll your eyes and make me another mean, mean grown-up, but you're lucky you got here. What if I had been on location somewhere?"
"I'm fifteen, it's not like I'm twelve."
"And it's not like you're forty-two, either. People are disgusting, or have you forgotten?"
"How could I?"
My sister put on music and I checked to see what she was playing: Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here. Lonesome music that seemed like it could only belong on the West Coast. My sister only thinks music is good if it's a thousand years old. I sent her some music by the band that Doon and I love best, Freekmonkee, and she told me that it sounded like bad Nirvana covers, which proves she didn't even listen to it. They're British but just relocated to LA. Doon had a shrine on her computer for the lead singer, Karl Marx, and I was mildly obsessed with the guitarist, Leo Spark. When I first got on the plane, I actually checked first class to see if any members of Freekmonkee were on board, but no luck.
My sister and mom always thought that something awful was going to happen to me — they acted like the only option for running away was winding up in pieces in some stranger's freezer. My family was clearly the place where optimism went to die. What about the hope that something amazing might happen? Half the time I wondered if they weren't wishing for the worst, then they could turn me into a sad story they told their friends instead of having to deal with me as an actual life-form who shared their DNA.
"What if the taxi driver had been a serial killer?" I said. "What if terrorists hijacked the plane? I did get here. I'm fine. I'd like to know how long it took her to notice I was gone."
"You laugh, but stranger things have happened. Did you know they found a severed head in Griffith Park last week? I jog there, or at least I did. And as to your second question, not long." My sister sipped the grass-shake. "Lynette's credit card company called a few hours afterward about a suspicious charge."
Lynette's bank called. I'll bet they did. Before my mom decided she was a lesbian, I thought lesbians were all these really nice, earthy, crunchy, let's smother you with our twenty extra pounds of lady love and fight the power people. But Lynette wasn't like that at all. She was thin and smart and mean, and probably slept with her cell phone to get bank alerts like that.
"So it's really their money they're worried about," I said.
"That's not what I said at all. That's how they found out. Are you depressed or something?"
I didn't shake my head either way. I hadn't really thought about it.
"I'm not taking sides on this one. Cora's clearly lost her mind and I regret that you're living the crazy, but you can't just steal people's credit cards. You can't. Okay?" She ran her finger inside the glass to get the last of the sludge while I reopened the refrigerator door to see if anything with refined flour or sugar had materialized. No luck.
But it wasn't really theft. It wasn't.
One thing I didn't tell my sister, and I wouldn't tell my mom or dad, or anyone, really, because it's the kind of thing that just makes you look sad when you're supposed to be having a good time, but when I charged the ticket I imagined that when I got on the plane I'd try to order a wine, or see if they'd upgrade me to first class, or at least spend some money on the snacks they make you pay for. Traveling with parents meant sad dried fruit and chewy popcorn in Ziploc bags. I was going to have Pringles! I thought it would be my reward for talking my way through security, but the crazy thing was that after I flashed my passport (stamped once from a horrible weekend "getting to know" Lynette in the Bahamas), they let me through security like a fifteen-year-old traveling alone was the most normal thing in the world. Maybe it was, but I'd never done it. They didn't even find the mini can of mace attached to my key chain. By the time I got on the plane, I felt even more invisible than I had at home, and I munched my sad peanuts like there were no other options. I had become the human equivalent of one of those balloons we used to send into the air with our name and address on the string in the hope that someone might mail it back, but no one ever did.
Maybe my sister was onto something, and I was depressed. A normal person would have at least bought an in-flight snack box. The thought did cross my mind that once I landed in LA, I could take a taxi to Disneyland, or hightail it to the Hollywood sign, or get one of those maps of the stars' houses and maybe even become the youngest member of the paparazzi and get accidentally famous for my pictures in a straight-to-Pay-Per-View-movie kind of way. I thought those were optimistic ideas, but maybe they were really depressing.
When we landed, my sister was waiting right outside the gate, inside security, plastered to her cell phone.
"Yes," she'd said. "She's here. I see her now. She looks fine. I know. Okay. Love you too."
"What are you doing here?" I thought about hugging Delia, but her hands were crossed over her chest and she didn't make a move in that direction.
"What am I doing here? Have you completely lost your mind?"
"I'll be the judge of that. Well, right now, I'm missing work because my phone rang this morning and I had to talk Cora off the ledge. Seriously, I've got to hand it to you. I thought I was a grade-A fuckup for not going to college, but you're leaving me in the dust. Is something happening?" Her voice lowered a bit. "Is anyone molesting you? Because I wouldn't send you back, and I would always believe you."
"No!" I said. "Gross. Who would molest me? Dad? Lynette? No, it's just ... I don't want to talk about it."
"You flew all the way across the country and you don't want to talk about it. Fine for now, but I'm gonna let you in on a little secret, they're gonna want you to talk about it."
I hadn't seen my sister in almost a year. She'd always been pretty, but now she had the smoothed-down look of a Barbie doll. Her hair was straight and the glossy black of an expensive magazine cover. She had on a wifebeater, blue jeans, and five-inch-high dominatrix heels: black leather with silver studs. But she could still walk faster than me, in my Converse low-tops, Old Navy denim, and red Georgia sweatshirt.
"They wanted to send you right back home," she said. "You can thank me for the fact that you get to stay here to cool off for a couple of days. But you're under house arrest, okay? No running off to the Coffee Bean for celebrity sightings. I want to understand what's going on. You know this makes me feel guilty too, don't you?"
Just walking through the LA airport made me glad that I wasn't in Atlanta. When you go up the escalators at the Atlanta airport there's a mural on the walls that features a mystery-race toddler with creepy blurred-out genitals playing in a fountain. I think it's supposed to be friendly and We love everyone, yay! but it's just weird. The LA airport is the exact opposite; no one is trying to look friendly, and everyone we passed looked half starved and almost famous.
"You're not listening," she said. "Does it even bother you that I could lose my job for missing work today? Finding an actress to fill my shoes is like finding a clover in a clover field, okay? A thank-you would be in order."
"I'm sorry," I said.
Delia stopped walking and stared me down, like the old days.
"And thank you. Thaaaaannnnnnk youuuuuuuu."
"A little sincerity never killed anyone," she said, and then she gestured for me to hand over the bigger of my bags.
"So what are you working on?" I asked.
"Were you even listening when I called last weekend? It's an indie horror flick about zombies and the organ trade in China."
I hadn't checked any other luggage, so we headed straight for the parking lot. It felt like I was going on vacation.
"Did you know that part of the reason they won't get rid of the death penalty in China is the organ trade? And they don't just execute people in prisons, they have these vans that drive around and pick people up and do away with them on the spot. So I'm supposed to be this American woman who sees a body thrown from one of the vans" — she paused in creepy horror-movie style — "only it's not really dead yet. I think they're trying to make a point, the director keeps talking about human rights and Amnesty International, but I think that's to hide the fact that he can't write dialogue. Not my problem as long as he can pay my salary," she said. "You want to know what it's called?"
"Thief of Hearts. I mean, unless your lead zombie is Internet dating, it's too tragically idiotic, right?" She was cracking herself up.
We got into a BMW convertible that was definitely not my sister's. It had magnets on the bumper that advertised private schools, or where someone vacationed, code letters that only other super-rich people would recognize.
"What's the HH for?" I asked. "Heil Hitler?"
"What are you talking about?"
"The sticker, on the bumper. And SSI? Is that Nazi too?"
"Hilton Head and St. Simon's Island. Vacation spots. Lord, Anna, there are more of those on bumpers in Atlanta than here. Where do you get these things?"
"I don't know," I said. "The Discovery Channel?"
For the longest time she was dating Roger, a film student who would have been hard-pressed to drive a '92 Corolla off a used-car parking lot. But now she's "just good friends" with the producer of the Bond flick that she lost the part for, and he lets her use his car when he's abroad. Because friends do things like that in LA, especially when one of the friends is extremely good-looking.
"Let me finish about the film," she said. "Not that you were listening. I'm practically the lead, only I'm down a kidney or something by the end."
It was three hours earlier in California and the sky hadn't started to get dark, but I felt tired. I leaned my head against the window and watched the traffic, the palm trees, the fruit stands on the sides of the streets. It was easy to be in California with my sister. She was the kind of person who people didn't just buy drinks for — they offered her their cars, their homes, their credit cards. I knew what the week would be like if I stayed here — Pilates and yoga, a trip to the old perv who balanced her energy, a few days on the set, a manicure or a haircut, and maybe a sip of a beer when we went out with the producer when he came back, just to prove how "cool" he was. People were nice to me when I was with Delia because I was her sister. My sister would never have to steal five hundred bucks — if she so much as looked a little sad, someone was there to open his wallet.
If only my sister were my mom. "Overrated," she said when I told her that once. "Cora was my sister-mom, and we're a real portrait of functionality, right?"
I'd heard stories about my mom in the old days, how she would take Delia on dates with her when she couldn't find a sitter, or the time they took off for the World Series of Poker in Vegas because my mom had a dream that she was going to win big. The mom I got, Cora 2.0, always made me call her Mom, and until their divorce she and Dad were sort of like the living room furniture — around, but nothing to notice. I guess they were fine, but they definitely weren't fun. When my sister talked about Cora, it was like she knew a totally different person.
Excerpted from American Girls by Alison Umminger. Copyright © 2016 Alison Umminger. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ha its good
I really enjoyed the book, except for one thing. It is "the Manson girls" and their relationships with Charlie, the grizzly murders and more. I think those things add nothing to the book, but bring it down. It was not enough to take away from my enjoyment of Anna and Jeremy. Her sister, Delia is a bit of a downer for Anna. Anna's mom divorced her dad and married Leslie. Anna saw Leslie's purse one day and used her credit card to fly from Atlanta to L.A., where her sister, Delia, lives. She just shows up at her door. To pay Leslie back and avoid more trouble, Delia gets Anna a job working for her boyfriend, Dex. Delia is making a movie with her ex-boyfriend, Roger. Dex takes Anna to his tv set where she meets Jeremy (he and his brother are the show's stars), who likes to drive Anna around L.A. Roger also gave Anna a research assistant job to write all she can about the Manson girls for his movie. She does make enough money to pay Leslie back. She also finds out that someone is angrily stalking her sister. Anna stays with Delia at her apartment for the summer, and does some not so normal things. All in all, it is a good y.a. book to read for fun. Thank you Alison Umminger and Goodreads First Reads for letting me win a free book to read and give my honest review.
American Girls by Alison Umminger starts as a tale of a whiny teen girl who stole her step-mom’s credit card and flew across the country to LA to stay with her struggling actress sister. In the beginning I was turned off by Anna as I thought she was just a typical bratty spoiled teen. But as the story progressed I was drawn into her world and I realized that Anna may not have had the best reaction, but her reasons were deeper than even she may have realized. American Girls started as a typical YA read. Girl is pissed at her parents and skips town to stay with her sister in LA., but the plot had way more depth than that. Anna should have felt protected by the adults around her and instead she was treated as an after thought. Even her summer job, researching the Manson girls, was pressed on her by an adult and was not something she should have been exposed to. Alison Umminger wrote an extraordinary story and had a very lyrical style of story telling. I really enjoyed the way she was able to splice together some very disparate themes and make them all work. The pacing had some wonky moments but I was able to pick the story back up quickly. I enjoyed the world built. Anna had a unique way of looking at the places around her and that was conveyed well. There were plenty of emotions in the tale and while there was some teen drama that was a bit over the top, it all worked well. Out of the entire cast of characters, I only liked Anna. Everyone else was so focused on themselves they were almost awful. Anna though, made every second of dealing with the other characters worth it. American Girls is a very different YA read. The depth of the story and the underlying focus on a horrific series of events made for such an interesting read. The fish out of water looking in at what should be glamor was also very intriguing. This is Alison Umminger’s debut, and if this is her first, I can only imagine how good her second will be. She is definitely an author to keep an eye on, as there is a lot of talent there. Original review @ 125Pages.com I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Review There are some books you don't want to rush through, but savor for the experience. This is one of those books for me. Anna crosses the country to get away from some mistakes she made back in Atlanta, mistakes she does quite recognize as such right away. She arrives in LA to stay with her older sister, who's barely making it as an actress in Hollywood, and for the summer, finds herself living a life that's as divorced from her old one as we can all imagine anyone's life in Hollywood must be. Anna gets roped into researching the Manson girls to help her sister's ex-boyfriend, a director, with an upcoming project. Going into reading this book, I knew very little about the Manson girls, and by the end, I'm left completely in awe of how Umminger weaves the threads of this story together so effectively, especially using her knowledge of the Manson girls. This is a completely illuminating examination of what it is to be a young woman in America today, and the continuum of the female experience for the past several decades. Okay, that makes it sound somehow academic or inaccessible, which is not at all true! I loved that this book was funny and smart, and also voiced completely authentically for a fifteen year old protagonist. Anna's epiphanies felt true and earned, and the characters she met throughout her LA adventure entirely believable. A fantastic coming of age story told through a unique lens, from a writer to watch.
Blech not that you-know