"Have you ever had the feeling that you aren't the main character in the story of your life? That you fill a more minor role - supporting cast, maybe, comic relief, or even antagonist? If that is true - if you aren't the big deal in the story of your life, if your whole purpose is to act as a foil or a catalyst for someone else - then maybe it doesn't matter what you do. Or what you don't do.
Maybe all that matters is what others do to you."
- INFANDOUS, by E.K. Arnold, from an Advanced Review Copy.
Infandous is an old, old word from the Latin infandus, which straight up means abominable. Indeed, there is something fairly horrible hiding behind a corner in this novel - a horrible, meaningless error that the reader knows could have been prevented. Where does one go from something unspeakable? This novel is a series of snapshots - before - after - during of a truly bad moment in sixteen-year-old Sephora's charmed beachfront life -- but is it really charmed? Is there more to life than finding your art or following your bliss? What if you find out that not all is blissful? What then?
Summary: Yeah, so Sephora is pretty sure she was named after the cosmetics store, no matter what her mother says about it meaning "beautiful bird" or "independent." She's a realist, is our Sephora; cynical, jaded, smart and too hip for words -- but in her heart of hearts, no matter how snarky she is, she has a small child's adoration for her mother. She says repeatedly throughout the novel how beautiful she is, how heads turn when she goes anywhere -- but Sephora's same adoration is tainted with an edge of dis-ease -- if her mother hadn't gotten pregnant with her by some nameless tourist so many summers ago, who would she have risen to be? In the fashion world, where she was already making waves? In the larger universe, which was open to her, before her conservative, religious parents and sister turned their backs? Rebecca Golding is so amazing now, shimmering in the beachfront firmament, making do as a worker bee hygienist, when she could have been a runway model. Without the mistake that was Sephora, that cost her youth and beauty and freedom, her family and her options, who could she have been?
And, without her losses and mistakes looming over Sephora - doubled and compiled and repeated - who might Sephora be? Who does Sephora WANT to be?
Peaks: While this isn't the sort of book that you can say that you LIKE - at least I can't - the voice is arresting, as is the conceit of prefacing pivotal points in the protagonist's narrative with chapters of fairytales for context, the real tales, in all their brutal, misogynistic hideousness. This is the sort of novel writers pore over in grad school, and has the requisite intellectual mentions of Greek mythologies, Nabokov's LOLITA, and Latin and Greek vocabulary words. This is a novel about sex and power and the use and misuse of both. The voice is compelling, and this is definitely a grown-up feeling novel for young women who want to be serious thinkers but still like a narrative.
The book is also about extremes in relationships - blind mother love vs. informed distance from our parents; a Disney simplicity and innocence contrasting with highly sexualized, original fairytales; loyalty vs. betrayal; Sephora's cynicism vs. Sephora's wistful hopefulness about what the world could be; art vs. real life and the intersections between said. Even Sephora's relationship with her best friend is caught between public performances of erotic behavior and closeness, and private needling, as her friend bullies, blackmails, and otherwise tries prying away secrets Sephora hangs onto with both hands - despite claiming to love her best of everyone. Indeed, this is a book about tangled webs of lies, lives, and loves.
Valleys: NB: Due to these themes, this book is obviously not a good choice for every young adult reader.
While the voice in this novel is compelling, the character herself, with her sometimes jaded, cynical, very self-aware nature, is hard to engage with emotionally. Sephora's passivity is at times disturbing, in the face of her best friend's actions on her person, the actions of random boys on the beach, on her person -- and maybe it was just me, but I read the novel with a faint sense of nausea, the disturbing aspects of the fairytales pointing more and more clearly to the inevitable reveal, which wasn't surprising for me, but which may catch many readers off-guard. Sephora feels very acted-upon in the world, a character without her own agency, and while this is a large part of adolescence, feeling like you have no control over anything, Sephora just sort of going along with the tide feels disturbingly fatalistic, as if she in no way could have prevented her own tragedy. Because we don't feel quite as deeply for this passive, flaccid doll, the revealing moment her secret is discovered doesn't gut us - or at least, it didn't gut me. IT was more a moment of, "Huh. Well, lie down with dogs, rise up with fleas," and a pained shrug, which I doubt the author intended. Also, as is a common objection of mine, despite this novel taking place in Venice Beach, in the less wealthy part of it, even, where real people live and work, the characters are overwhelmingly white.
Conclusion: While not emotionally gripping for me personally, this is an intelligent and craftily plotted novel about nothing in general, and everything in particular, this one summer on the beach.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Carolrhoda Lab. After March 1, you can find INFANDOUS by Elena K. Arnold at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!