Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!
I love a good mean girls story.
You know the ones: they’re usually set in high school or college, featuring a queen bee and some sidekicks, boys who are largely props, and a girl who wants so badly to be part of the clique – so badly, in fact, that she inevitably does something catastrophically stupid, or betrays her friends, or reinvents herself into something shallow and vile, wrapped in the ultimate evil of female trappings: hairspray, glitter eyeshadow and miniskirts. You know, something a girl can redeem herself from.
These are stories born of female power, and they almost always evidence our discomfort with that same power: after all, almost all of these stories start by casting the powerful girls – hot girls with dangerous tongues and relentless ambitions – as villains, and then end with the outside girl – that same girl who wanted all that desire and access and dominance – rejecting all of those things in favor of being a good girl with a heart of gold. It’s a uniquely female story – and, I think, a uniquely hateful story that requires that a woman forego her power in order to achieve redemption. And redeemed from what? Why, her desire for that power in the first place. Of course.
So why do I love these stories? Because they are, fundamentally, inexorably, about women’s power. About inimitably feminine forms of power – the monstrous feminine, if you will, at its most potent – and our profoundly complicated relationship with that power. About how, in trying to be skinny and pretty and sexy and desired, what we’re really seeking is not only acceptance, freedom from our society-bred insecurities, but power, formidable, earth-shaking power. The power to walk down a school hallway – or a quad or a street or a corporate corridor – and have so much power and confidence and swagger that you know you’re indestructible. These stories, even when they’re ultimately dissatisfying, address a form of feminine power that almost all of us have wanted at one point in time or another. And much like I read “Bluebeard” over and over and over trying to find a feminist ending that doesn’t make me rage, I read mean girls stories over and over, seeking one where the outside girl, in the end, takes all that power that she’s busted her ass for – that she’s so often recreated her ass for — and revels in it. Because that’s what I want for her.
And that? That is how The Graces ended up on the 2017 Sirens Book Club list.
The Graces is cast just a bit differently: There’s no queen bee here, at least not one with a female hive of friends. Instead, we have the Graces, a nuclear family that is so mysterious and so aloof and so amazing that local lore says they’re witches. (As you do? I suppose in a fantasy book you must.) Thalia, Fenrin and Summer are the hive in The Graces, without a clear leader, but with all the sway and pull of a mean girls pack. Everyone in school wants them: to be their confidante, their friend, their lover.
River wants that, too. She and her mom have just moved to town – dad is not in the picture, and there’s some bitterness around that – and River’s in need of new friends. Like everyone else, River wants in with the Graces: in awe of Thalia, crushing on Fenrin, and ultimately, becoming uneasy best friends with Summer. But unlike everyone else, who has presumptively simple motives revolving around popularity and physical desire, River wants something else too: for the Graces to teach her magic.
The Graces is a dark book and a deliberately slippery one. River is an unreliable narrator, so wrapped up in what she wants to be true that it clouds the truth for the reader as well – and most of the book is spent in an uneasy will they-won’t they seesaw: Are the Graces really witches? Are the spells they’re doing actually magic? If it really is magic, can it be taught? Will they teach River? Or will River get too close to the Grace family secrets, causing them to cast her from their circle?
And ultimately, for me, a reader who badly wants the outside girl to do or be or want something other than a heart of gold in the end, this book satisfies. Because there’s a twist, a twist you might guess, but a twist that nevertheless has something to say about female power. (And a twist that, were there not so many other books to read, might make you want to read this book again for all the clues it surely contains.)
I don’t usually do read-alikes for books in this book club, but The Graces has some very similar literary sisters, in terms of the dark tone, the shifting truth, the unreliable narrator, the unclear magical elements, the strong desire to be something or someone else: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, Imaginary Girls, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers, The Accident Season. If any of those were in your wheelhouse, The Graces might be, too.
Why read it? If you, like me, are a sucker for an unreliable narrator. If you, like me, like your plot and your world to be a bit unknowable. If you, like me, like stories of girls chasing their power.
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for an entertainment company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and seven years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.