There is something undeniably striking about Alison Umminger’s debut novel My Favourite Manson Girl (also published in the US under the title American Girls). Sure, the title may bring a little shock with it, being a YA novel that features the Manson girls so prominently, but the power of this novel moves well beyond its ability to grab you from the title alone.
My Favourite Manson Girl follows the story of Anna, a fifteen year old girl who runs away from her family problems at home in Atlanta in order to escape to Los Angeles, where her sister works as an actress, and where she believes she might find some answers to why she feels like she no longer has a place in her own family. Instead of landing in the LA of television dreams, Anna finds herself lugged around by her begrudging sister Delia, owing her mother and her new partner Lynette a substantial amount of cash. The deal: she can stay in LA over the summer to get some space provided she can earn back the money she took for her plane ticket. To earn back the cash, she takes a job from her sister’s strange filmmaker ex-boyfriend researching the Manson girls for his latest project, only to find some disturbingly close links between her own life and those of the Manson girls.
I’m not quite sure why there is so much stuff going around about Charles Manson lately. From television shows to movies to books, it seems that there is almost a resurgence of the fascination around the Manson “family” and their famously grisly murders. As someone who has never really known much about Charles Manson and his strange cult, it surprised me that I was so drawn to a book like My Favourite Manson Girl, and not just because of its beautiful cover. There was something very intriguing about the title, the idea that someone could have a favourite from a group of scary murderesses under the wing of a man like Manson. I suppose that the focus has always been on Manson himself, rather than the girls he seduced with his strange ideologies, the girls whose lives could have otherwise been fairly normal. There is something very strange in remembering that.
In the author’s note, Umminger says:
“The Manson girls were lost girls who made bad choices. Really bad choices…I think the reason that the Manson family continues to fascinate because – as hard as it is to imagine – the Manson girls were once “regular” girls as well.”
But My Favourite Manson Girl isn’t really a story about the Manson girls at all. It is a story about the falsehood of the New American Dream, the let downs and disappointments of a world we think we know, a story about emotional violence rather than the kind the Manson family dealt in. Anna soon learns that LA is not the starry destination she thought it would be, but instead a place that trades in lies and secrets as part of its day-to-day existence. She finds herself caught up in reality of human relationships, without the flourishes of television scriptwriters behind it. This book feels like what being a teenager feels like, without the need for a fantastical façade in front of it, a refreshing moment in YA fiction.
While reading, I did find that the first few chapters took a little while to get off the ground, but from that point forward, the novel was all-consuming, and I simply could not get enough of the story that Umminger had written. A word of warning for older readers, ultimately this book is YA, so by nature there is a romantic sub-plot, and a few moments of seemingly stereotypical teen angst, but by no means does this take-over the narrative, instead creating opportunities for these YA tropes to be thrown on their heads later in the novel. This book is more than just teen fiction, and I would recommend it to readers from about sixteen years old and up.
Umminger has accomplished something brilliantly unique here, succeeding to write what she describes in her author’s note as a novel about “what the American dream might mean to a kind of lost, basically decent, deeply cynical fifteen year old girl,” and beyond that, a brilliantly consuming story about what it feels like to be a teenager all over again. This book is fundamentally about Anna trying to find her way back to a place in her family, trying to reconnect with her sister and her strangely indecisive mother, whilst also coming to terms with what she wants from these relationships, and I am glad to see stories like this arriving on our shelves.
My Favourite Manson Girl is now available in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its reader to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.
Thank you once again to Hachette Australia for sending me a copy of My Favourite Manson Girl. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.
© Hayley New 2016