According to nursery rhymes, girls are supposed to be made of sugar, spice, and everything nice, but Arnold (Infandous) knows that reality isn’t so pretty or simplistic. Her heroine, 16-year-old Nina, is made of body insecurities, few close friends, a willingness to do whatever it takes to keep her boyfriend, and an unsatisfying sex life in which birth control is her left for her to worry about. It’s not that this depiction rings false (would that it did) but that Arnold lays it out so baldly, and at times so oddly. Obsessed with female saints and their violated bodies, Nina writes short stories, interspersed throughout, that are a kind of Catholic magical realism—a saint is martyred for refusing to marry her father, a girl grows vaginas all over her body. Nina also stews over her mother’s claim that no love is unconditional, letting it drive her actions. In the end, Nina takes responsibility for herself, even things she’s not proud of, but while there’s much that’s laudable in Arnold’s novel, particularly her visceral portrait of girls as bodily creatures, too often the messaging feels forced. Ages 13–up. Agent: Rubin Pfeffer, Rubin Pfeffer Content. (Apr.)
When she was fourteen years old, Nina’s mother told her that “there is no such thing as unconditional love.” Arnold explores themes of conditional and unconditional love through sixteen-year-old Nina’s self-revealing narrative about her love for Seth. There is raw intimacy in Nina’s unvarnished descriptions of her sexual experiences with Seth; her first pelvic examination; her discovery of sexual pleasure; her experience of an early “medical” abortion; the pain she feels when Seth rejects her for the beautiful Apollonia; and the loss of the friendship of her best friend. She realizes that her unconditional desire for Seth causes her to be a young woman who is dependent upon Seth’s needs and moods. In the high-kill dog shelter where she volunteers, she sees the unconditional love dogs have for their owners, despite being abandoned to die. Her relationship with her mother (who has a history of miscarriages) is explored in memories of their trip to Italy where Nina reflected on martyred female saints and saw the wax sculptures of “flayed” women’s bodies. Entwined with Nina’s narrative are her short stories linking sex and death in which she writes, for example, about the death cycle of a laying hen and about those female saints whose unconditional vows of chastity resulted in death. Arnold uses powerful scenes and vivid imagery to emphasize the vulnerability of the female body but Nina emerges from traumatic experiences as a strong female, secure in her identity. There is probably not another YA book that describes all things “girl” in the brutally honest way Arnold does here. Teen girls should read this book, even if it is not easy. Reviewer: Hilary Crew; Ages 15 to 18.
VOYA, April 2017 (Vol. 40, No. 1) - Hilary Crew
Gr 10 Up—Nina has had a crush on Seth since fifth grade, but it wasn't until the summer after her 16th birthday that he finally acknowledged her feelings for him. Now, Nina will do whatever is necessary to maintain his affection. She is fully aware that all love comes with conditions; her mother, in particular, has made that very clear. But as the only child of dysfunctional parents, Nina craves the attention that Seth offers. Thoughts of him occupy her every waking hour, so when she unwittingly fails his unexpected test of her loyalty, she finds herself alone and adrift, especially after she makes a startling realization. When even her best friend fails to support her, Nina looks for help and solace in unlikely places, including at a dog shelter. In an afterword, Arnold explains that this story is the result of her anger at and complicity in the rules that society applies to girls. Her overarching theme is the fallacy of believing in unconditional love. The author presents a hopeful conclusion as Nina learns that self-love and fulfillment can be found through helping others. VERDICT Because of its complex symbolism and graphic imagery, this well-written novel is best suited to mature YA readers.—Cary Frostick, formerly at Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA
Pulling back the curtain on the wizard of social expectations, Arnold (Infandous, 2015, etc.) explores the real, knotted, messy, thriving heartbeat of young womanhood. When Nina Faye's mother tells her that there is no such thing as unconditional love, that even a mother's love for a daughter could end at any time, Nina believes her—after all, she has already seen many conditions of love at play: beauty, money, aloofness, sex. Two years later, the white, now-16-year-old not only confirms that these and more are unspoken stipulations of her relationship with her boyfriend, Seth (also white), but also finds they are part of the very fabric of cisgender girlhood that suddenly threatens to smother her. Nina's embroiling first-person prose alternating with what are revealed to be her own short stories lifts and examines the veils that encapsulate all the "shoulds" and "supposed tos" of teenage girlhood to expose bodily function, desire, casual cruelty, sex and masturbation, miscarriage and abortion, and, eventually, self-care. Arnold interweaves myriad landscapes, from the parched affluence of California neighborhoods to the ordered sadness of a high-kill animal shelter where Nina volunteers, from the sculpted terrain of Rome's brutalized virgin martyrs to the imperfect physicality of Nina's own body, into a narrative wholeness that is greater than its parts. Unflinchingly candid, unapologetically girl, and devastatingly vital. (author's note) (Fiction. 13-17)