Author’s Note: This review contains light spoilers and discussions of sexual assault and abuse.
Sixteen year-old George Avis’ hometown sits in the shadow of a mountain resort for the rich and powerful called Aspera. When we first meet George, she’s biking toward Aspera, desperate for a job at the one place where she knows she might make enough money to someday pay her brother back for what she’s “borrowedwp_postsin order to pay for some modeling photos. Before she can get there, however, she’s run off the road by a car, passes out, and wakes up in the woods, alone except for the partially-clothed, lifeless body of another girl, Ashley, the younger sister of a classmate. This is how I’m the Girl begins — with the rape and murder of a child. But unlike Courtney Summers’ last thriller, Sadie, this novel isn’t just about the fallout from that crime. George is about to get mixed up in a world far beyond her control, a world she’s been groomed for, a world her mother, who worked as a housekeeper at Aspera until her death, desperately tried to keep her away from. This is a novel about the sexual exploitation of a teenager, and it was very difficult to read.
Speaking of I’m the Girl, author Courtney Summers has been very clear about her intentions for the book. “This is the world that enabled Jeffrey Epstein,wp_postsshe says. “I’m coming for its throat.wp_postsSummers tries to do so by asking us not to look away as George makes choices, or thinks she is making choices, that put her in harm’s way, and then isn’t fully able to recognize that harm has been done. Only Nora, Ashley’s older sister and George’s one ally (and love interest) is able to see exactly what is happening to George, but as she tries to gently prompt her friend into understanding, she’s often busy elsewhere, working to solve her sister’s murder.
Unlike in Sadie, Summers doesn’t pull away from describing actual (partial) scenes and circumstances of abuse, and that’s something I really struggled with. Reviewers have called the book “grittywp_postsand “unflinching,wp_postsbut I found myself wondering what exactly Summers was trying to illuminate with her “don’t look awaywp_postsstrategy. We know that abuse and exploitation happen; pretty much anyone who was ever a teenage girl has had many experiences at varying points along that spectrum, and dipping directly into scenes where George is being assaulted felt, to me, like a strange choice.
Summers writes complex, fully human teenage girls, kids who are trying to make it through the world largely on their own. In Sadie, the protagonist was old before her time, world-weary and suspicious of men by the age of six. In contrast, here we have George, both precocious and naive, a girl who’s just recently discovered the power of her own sexuality as seen through the photographer’s lens, the male gaze at its most literal. In the absence of any living parent or many choices for her future, she feels ready to use her youth and beauty as currency in a world she doesn’t yet understand. While my childhood doesn’t come close to mirroring George’s, the fact that George is carefully made to feel complicit in these experiences, that some of the adults around George conspire to help her feel a power she doesn’t actually have, felt familiar to me. It will feel familiar to many of us. Summers’ first-person narration stays right with George throughout, and it’s both effective and suffocating as we wait for her to recognize the full extent of her powerlessness, the full extent of the harm that’s enacted upon her.
I’m the Girl asks us to look unflinchingly at the monsters that hold power in our culture, at the constellation of enablers that surrounds every last one of them, at the damage it does to kids like George and Ashley and the others who aren’t named. It certainly shines a light on a particular dynamic of abuse. But to what end? We know those monsters. We’re the girls. We’ve survived, like we hope George will. But the monsters aren’t reading this, and we know they never will. The story, then, remains George’s, remains ours, and I find myself unsure how to feel about novels like this one.
Don’t look away.
Is that enough?