Truly I wish I had got my act together to read the eARC I received from NetGalley and Wednesday Books well before publication day so that I could then reread the copy I pre-ordered from my indie bookstore! Alas, procrastination got the better of me, so I dipped into the ebook the weekend prior and then finished I’m the Girl in all its hardcover glory. I braced myself for devastation, and I was not disappointed. Courtney Summers just seems to be continually reaching new heights of her powers. If I sound like a fangirl, it’s because I am one!
Sixteen-year-old Georgia Avis lives in small town Ketchum. With her mother having passed not too long ago, Georgia is supported by her hard-working older brother. But she has aspirations of her own: she wants to become an Aspera girl. Aspera is the ritzy private retreat on the outskirts of town, and Georgia’s mother worked there—as a cleaner—before being fired in disgrace. Georgia’s brother wants nothing to do with Aspera. But the sudden and shocking murder of the thirteen-year-old daughter of a police officer—on the road that leads to Aspera, no less—throws everything into turmoil and doubt. Even as Georgia’s desires seem to be within reach, she has to decide if that is truly what she wants—or would she rather figure out what she has with Nora, and who killed Ashley?
At its most basic, I’m the Girl is technically a murder mystery. Nora and Georgia are allies—albeit reluctant ones at first—in solving the murder of Nora’s sister. Indeed, this was my first impression of the book from the marketing I saw. But please don’t be mistaken: this is not a cozy sapphic detective team-up. It is brutal and twisted and you are not going to feel comfortable reading it. It’s about the ephemeral and illusory nature of power in a misogynistic society that regards women as bodies more than people. Ashley’s murder is a part of that, of course, as is what Georgia experiences. But there’s a reason that Georgia is the sole narrator of this book.
Georgia is young. Sheltered, even. Her mother has gone to great lengths to protect her from the harshness of this world, but of course, Georgia resents her for this. I love how Summers subtly reinforces Georgia’s youthful inexperience. At various times throughout the book, Georgia will casually remark about how she doesn’t know or doesn’t understand something, whether it’s how to do something on the computer or the meaning of a word. Sometimes these confessions are solely to us, the readers; sometimes they are to people in her life. It’s a small thing, but it reminds us that everything we read in this book is being filtered through the mind of a sixteen-year-old girl from a small town. Lots of books are like this, of course, but what I mean when I highlight this fact is that Georgia is more conduit than character.
Indeed, this book at times feels like an arthouse film where the cinematography and scene structure matters more than the acting. If I have a criticism of I’m the Girl, it’s mainly that Georgia receives very little character development for a protagonist. She is stubbornly fixated on becoming an Aspera girl, even as the flags around her turn deeper and deeper shades of red. I bet that if I head over to the Goodreads reviews of this book, I’ll see—yep, there’s a bunch of 1-star reviews highlighting this flaw. And I get it! We all want to see an innocent protagonist who gets taken advantage of, victimized, abused, grow and challenge her abusers and somehow win. Summers is as stubborn as Georgia in refusing to give us that satisfaction. If you have read Sadie then you shouldn’t be surprised, though you are allowed to be disappointed.
But I don’t really even consider this a criticism on my part if I look at the book through that different artistic lens. Georgia is how Summers distills the theme of the book into a reasonably linear narrative. Georgia doesn’t change for most of the book because part of the point of I’m the Girl is that our world doesn’t change, at least not in this respect. Even after #MeToo and #TimesUp, even when a big man falls and ends up in prison for his crimes, the fundamental fabric of our society remains patriarchal. The players and pawns change but the game itself does not.
With this in mind, an ending that might feel frustrating and meaningless becomes, in many ways, the most uplifting part of the book. There is incredible power not just to the final line itself, but to how the book design actually supports its delivery. The line is its own final chapter, and the book is typeset in such a way that it appears on the verso, so you’re forced to turn the page before seeing it. The last thing you read, the penultimate line, is “I bring my hands to the necklace.” In that moment, everything Georgia has experienced hangs in the balance. The necklace is a metaphor for the life Georgia has been trying to build for herself, at only sixteen. What she does next is everything, is an indication of where Georgia will be going from here. So you have to pause. You have to take in the blank space at the end of the chapter, a yawning lacuna fraught with possibility, before turning the page to read that final line and learn Georgia’s fate—or at least, rather, get the barest of hints. It’s brilliant.
Summers has a well-deserved reputation for devastation, a reputation I have long agreed with in my reviews. Make no mistake: I’m the Girl is a devastating novel. As I said earlier, it’s brutal. There are graphic depictions of the body of a murdered girl and multiple scenes of rape. This is not a nice book to read; I didn’t particularly enjoy it. If you came here looking for a more straightforward thriller, I think you’ll be very disappointed. Similarly, though this book will inevitably be labelled as young adult thanks to its protagonist’s age, it is not. Not really. But the book’s refusal to conform to neat genre lines isn’t the book’s problem; it’s ours.
Indeed, you can dislike this book and criticize it for being a hot mess of an experiment—as long as you recognize that’s what it is. And that, I think, is what I am celebrating here as a Courtney Summers fangirl. A decade ago, Summers was writing relatively straightforward young adult narratives about how we fuck up the lives of high school girls. They were good, sometimes even great, and even then Summers demonstrated her power to plumb the depths of teenage angst. But her last three novels have, in my estimation, eclipsed her earlier works by dint of her willingness to play with story structure and character in a way that she did not or could not before. I can see how someone coming to this book as their first Summers experience, or coming to it hoping for a retread of any of her previous works, might feel let down. I can’t say that I feel that way, though, because all I feel is awe.
Despite Summers being the Queen of Devastation, and despite this novel being so unrelenting in its brutality, I feel compelled to conclude that this might be one of the more hopeful entries in Summers’ entire repetoire. Is that weird? Like, Sadie remains my far-and-away favourite simply for the indelible space that girl has set up in rent-free in my mind, but that book is also quite graphic and bleak in its telling and does not, in my opinion, offer even the smallest morsel of hope for a better future. I’m the Girl, on the other hand, grants us at least one moment of hoping for something more.
Our world doesn’t change, alas. Georgia’s story is too many girls’ stories. It shouldn’t be. One day, I hope, it isn’t. But until that time, novels like this bear witness to the fundamental flaws of our society. They refuse to glorify or excuse this violence, but they also don’t sanitize it. They refuse to let us look away. The powerful men at the centre of this story are truly heinous, yet they cannot operate with such impunity unless they are supported by people—including women—who manage to rationalize their complicity until they can still sleep at night. Because, yes, men do these awful things to women and girls. But the rest of us are the ones who keep letting them get away with it.