“Once upon a time there was a diary.”
Gridley Girls is a debut novel that reads part memoir, part fiction. The story is based on true events. Even though we get a look at a few aspects of the truth, we don’t know all of the truth versus the fiction. And because it’s based on true events, this novel read as a hybrid novel, with some pieces reading more as fiction and others more as a memoir. It’s easy to imagine that this was indeed very close to how the author grew up. Even if it isn’t, the writing is so distinct and full of personality, it feels as if you’re hearing her talk rather than reading a story.
Meg Monahan grew up in Gridley California. Like her parents before her, and their parents before them. She knows nearly everyone in the town. Secrets are hard to keep secret, yet somehow Meg is always the one people confide in, expecting that she keep their confessions safe.
“Mainly I just stay private. That’s hard for you to imagine since you live your life out loud, but it’s easier for us to be private.”
After she is chosen to be a peer counselor her freshman year, this confidence gets pushed to the limits as she receives information that is simply too much for her to handle on her own. It’s easier to keep a secret when it’s your choice. Meg finds that the expectation of confidence, combined with the heavier secrets, makes the burden that much harder to bear.
The novel is told through the eyes of an adult Meg, deciding if she can stomach uprooting her family to the unthinkable reaches of Minnesota, and a teenage Meg going through her freshman year of High School. The events that unfold during her teenage years all carry through and show their relevance to her adult life as the book progresses.
We are all shaped by the things that happen to us growing up. Tragedy and triumph alike can leave indelible marks and shape the adults we become. For Meg, these secrets that her peers trusted her with became nearly too much. When she confides in a trusted friend, and is overheard, that guilt follows her into adulthood.
“In my mind, I was out of control. Who was I going to tell next? My parents? The mailman? Nothing was stopping my giant mouth. My fears were ruling my life.”
This book is a hybrid in another sense. The pieces of Meg’s high school years are very fitting for a YA novel. Not just because she is an adolescent. But because there are some very good lessons and messages written within those pages. Topics like teenage sex, struggling to reconcile your religious beliefs with the reality of life around you, abortion, homosexuality, death and mental illness are all brought up and examined in a thoughtful way.
The messages aren’t preached to you, and they aren’t drilled down or overly dramatized. Some are more dominant than others, and not all of them have lessons learned or even closure written to them. But they are excellent conversation starters and serve to open the door for closer examination.
They hit home because they are told in first person, from the eyes of a teenage girl. Her reaction is what you would expect them to be: scared and confused. This allows for her to ask for advice, and to analyze her own thoughts to try and process how to feel. It was an excellent representation of how confusing adolescence can be.
It’s balanced with the adult years, and the lesson that life doesn’t always make sense once you reach adulthood. There are still struggles and tragedies mixed in with the good times and triumphs.
“I guess that’s the whole point: the attempt to understand, the attempt to love. It’s when we stop trying to understand and stop trying to love that everything falls apart.”
This book is a very fun read, and at the end, First throws in a guide to seventies pop culture. This will be especially helpful to younger readers who may have no idea what actors, shows, music, or even general culture references are made during her teenage years. For those who do remember, this book will be a fun blast into the past.
Sometimes pop culture can be tricky to write into a plot without sounding out of place or forced, but First writes it in fluidly, making them part of the scenery and not overly obnoxious. It feels very natural, because it stems from Meg. Of course that’s how she would make sense of her world, because it is her world.
It did take me a few chapters to adjust to the writing style. It can feel a bit choppy, and you feel that while reading. Once I got to know Meg a bit, and realized that an adolescent girl who talks a mile a minute when she’s nervous probably would talk like that, it became more natural to read. Again, because it reads part fiction and part memoir, the fluidity of the writing does change a bit between chapters. It requires the reader to adjust to the tone of the chapter, and in part to the change between Meg as a girl and Meg as a woman.
Overall I enjoyed this book. There is a lot of humor in First’s writing, both as a teenager and as an adult. She tackles very real topics, not just about growing up, but the world at large. These make the book full of depth. I didn’t grow up in the 70’s, but even still, I felt a lot of nostalgia reading through her experiences. Any teenage girl, regardless of the time and specifics, all feel awkward, and scared, and overwhelmed, and confused during those years. She’s relatable and easy to identify with. Which I think makes this a good book to start conversations with teenage readers. Not to mention, just being able to ask your mom about some of these trends and references to pop culture will definitely start some good conversation, along with some memorable laughs, I’m sure!
Thank you BookSparks and She Writes Press for sending me a copy to read and review!