Book Review: Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young
The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardians, the all-girl boarding school offers an array of studies and activities, from “Growing a Beautiful and Prosperous Garden” to “Art Appreciation” and “Interior Design.” The girls learn to be the best society has to offer. Absent is the difficult math coursework, or the unnecessary sciences or current events. They are obedient young ladies, free from arrogance or defiance. Until Mena starts to realize that their carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears.
As Mena and her friends begin to uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations will find out what they are truly capable of. Because some of the prettiest flowers have the sharpest thorns.
Overall, I really liked this book and recommend it. It’s a subversive look at the patriarchy through the lens of an all girls finishing school that takes a lot of darkly unique twists and turns. By the end of this book I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for these girls to take up their sharp sticks and use them against the abusive men running the school. I want a very real and very vengeful uprising and trust me, these men deserve it.
Here’s the set up: a group of girls are in a finishing school where they are being groomed to be the perfect companions for men. They are told repeatedly that their greatest glory is this and in the beginning, they have no reason to think differently. They are sequestered, cut off from friends, family and all modern day conveniences. They are abused, manipulated, groomed, harassed, and then . . . things get even darker. That’s right my friends, things get seriously twisted and dark. I won’t tell you how because spoilers, but yeah, dark and twisted.
What I loved about this book is how it takes that dystopian mirror but shines a real light on a lot of modern day toxic elements of the patriarchy. It seems dark and twisted, but it’s also fundamentally rooted in a lot of real life perceptions held by men who want to maintain male dominance. It’s the patriarchy twisted, but also truthful. When you peel back this twisted dystopian curtain you are left with a lot of very real twisted and toxic truths about rape culture, the patriarchy and more. There is a lot of truth to discuss here. It’s like looking at our world through a fun-house mirror. It may seem absurd, but it’s only a mild distortion of reality.
You’ll notice that I didn’t highly recommend this book, because it’s not perfect. I think there is a lot of solid attempt here, but it doesn’t always necessarily come together perfectly. For one, it is a really slow start. I almost put it down but am thankful that I picked it back up again a few weeks later. That slow start really pays off.
Another real problem with this book is that these girls are told repeatedly that they are they ideal girl and that the way that they look physcially is part of that. However, almost all of the girls in this book present as white, which reinforces the very harmful ideal that white standards of beauty are the ultimate standards of beauty. It many ways, while trying to break down these very ideals, the narrative also reinforces the toxic cultural white beauty standards by not including more girls of color in the book. I think this part needed more time and attention to be better and more fully developed.
Another slight quibble I had with the narrative is that the girls are ultimately helped a lot by a male outsider in both their growing awareness that something isn’t right and in their ultimate attempts at escape. It’s unfortunate that a clearly feminist book still has its female characters need so much help from a male character to accomplish their goals. And of course this male character is presented as a possible romantic interest for one of the main female characters. To me, it’s an unfortunate narrative choice, but I understand that a lot of readers also like possible romance in their stories.
There’s lots of good here though. Two of the girls are in a relationship with each other. Although the many girls start out seeming interchangeable, which makes sense given that they are basically being trained to be the same docile version of femininity, they experience a lot of growth and individuation. And the girls do find lots of ways to fight the system on their own. Plus, bonus points here, it is the words of a poem that really help to stir their souls and awaken their intellect, and I loved this because I’m a librarian who believe in the power of the written word.
In the end, I found this book to be inspiring, challenging, and binge-worthy. It’s by no means perfect, but I’m looking forward to reading what happens next as this book is clearly set up for a sequel.
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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