Book review: About A Girl, by Sarah McCarry

The conclusion to Sarah McCarry’s fantastic Metamorphoses Trilogy came out in July, and while I am bitter that I won’t get to play with these characters again, I’m really excited to see what she comes out with next, so it’s really more of a bittersweet sensation. Appropriate for this series, which has a very bittersweet tone of its own as our characters move through a world that is part grunge, part epic retelling, part magical realism, all in a tangled, seamless web that makes it difficult to tell where one leaves off and the next begins. If this trilogy doesn’t become a cult classic, I’m going to be extremely annoyed, though I am admittedly biased.

Each book within the trilogy stands alone, though they are best read together — in a sense, All Our Pretty Songs, Dirty Wings, and About a Girl are a triptych more than a trilogy (you can read my reviews of All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings should you feel inclined to learn a bit more about them). They feature iterations of the same cast of characters at different stages of their lives, allowing us the rare opportunity to see YA characters really grow and age well into adulthood through the use of intergenerational storytelling. For younger readers, it’s an unusual experience, while for older readers, it adds to the rich, literary feel of the trilogy, creating an onionlike feel that stands out from other YA as you get the experience of layers within layers.

And yes, that is two girls kissing on the cover. In fact, it’s the first time two girls have kissed on the cover of any commercial YA, and it’s a preview of the diverse depictions, identities, and lives that lie within the pages of About A Girl, which explores narratives of race, gender identity, and other aspects of human existence as did other books in the trilogy. In an era where diversity teeters between being a buzzword and an authentic desire, where unfortunately the publishing industry is keen on putting out any diverse representation to take advantage of the drive for diverse books, About A Girl stands out because it’s not about the diversity. The different identities of the characters are just part of the story and who they are, rather than being obviously and awkwardly inserted. They’re vitally important to who the characters are, and thus aren’t erased via a casual single mention to establish their bona fides followed by no reference or contextualisation whatsoever, but McCarry doesn’t beat the reader over the head with the diversity stick for points, either.

And yes, that thing in that one scene is exactly what you think it is. You’ll know it when you see it. Trust me.

Tally is 18, convinced she has her life on lock, and determined that she’s destined to be a famous astronomer — McCarry went to the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop and it really shows through here in a text interwoven with astronomy throughout — until a mysterious discovery leads her to think she might finally know who her father is, upending a family secret. She travels across the country to find him, and what she finds is a strange little town on a remote island where things are…not quite right, even as she begins to fall in love with one of the denizens of the island and remains frustrated in her attempts to get the man she thinks is her father to open up about his past, what led him to stop playing music, and Tally’s own role in his life.

This trilogy is, of course, heavily rooted in Ovid, with familiar characters flickering on and off screen for sharp-eyed readers. It’s also inspired, though, by the Seattle grunge scene, and the two make an oddly appropriate pairing — epic poetry and epic lives, a magnum opus and an all-consuming culture that had a huge impact on music, but also on the lives of its followers. Grunge fans didn’t just listen: They became a part of the music, the culture, the lives of the musicians, in some cases giving up everything to follow their passions. That thread — music, its creators, its followers, the Faustian bargains creators sometimes make — comes out especially strong in About A Girl, where the stories of all the characters across the trilogy begin to fall into place.

Tally’s complicated romance and growing understanding of the fact that being an adult isn’t as simple as advertised is really elegantly told — as with McCarry’s other books, About A Girl illustrates that literary, soaring, brilliant prose isn’t limited to adult fiction. For this reason alone, it’s a vital series to include in the YA canon, because it’s critical to push back against the notion that all YA looks, feels, and sounds the same, or that literary YA can’t have commercial value — young adults are reading books like this, they crave books like this, they enjoy books like this. Teenagers, shockingly, don’t need to be spoonfed pablum and want to be challenged and engaged by what they read just like adults, which About A Girl definitely does.

There’s no neat, happy ending here, but there is resolution, a followthrough both for readers who’ve moved through the entire trilogy and for those who’ve started with About A Girl. Which is what I expect of McCarry, because she’s not one to tidy things up to satisfy her readers. If nothing else, it creates a strong incentive to explore the rest of the trilogy as well as the text(s) that inspired it, which is exactly what good fiction should do.

If About A Girl doesn’t get you wanting to give up everything and follow Sarah McCarry around with a suitcase, I honestly don’t know what to tell you.