I want to give Girl in the Arena four--possibly even five--stars, because it has something few other books I've had the pleasure of reading has. Something I've been looking for, desperately, within YA fiction. Something that just...I don't know... Just speaks to me, I guess; feels true. I can relate to it, to the protagonist, how she feels. I understand her because, in a way, I was her. Maybe, from time to time, I still am her.
To help you understand where I'm coming from I need to go back. Way back. Back to August 3, 2008, when I finished reading the flaming garbage pile that is called Breaking Dawn. As I closed the book, I sat back and contemplated what I'd just read. I was speechless at first, trying to pinpoint why Bella's picture perfect Happily Ever After made me angry beyond all reason.
The next morning I called my friends, asked them what they thought of the book. And you know what? I was shocked--shocked!--to discover none of my friends were dissatisfied. So I ran to the internet--to GoodReads, as it turns out--and sought out others who felt the way I did. I discovered a little group of disillusioned Twilight fans and together we ripped Breaking Dawn to shreds. Upon doing so, I saw what it was that bugged me so much: EVERYTHING. The entire book.
I especially hated how everyone was eating that piece of creeptastic wish-fulfillment up and begging for more. Listening to people refer to it as 'beautiful literature' was enough to stoke my fiery rage. I was embarrassed for every grown woman who referred to stalkerific Edward as the perfect man. I felt bad for the teens who thought Edward and Bella were the epitome of twu wuv
--The ideal.So stupid, the lot of them,
I thought to myself. I'm glad my girls are too young to read the Twilight series.
It was then a bunch of horrible and very-much insane thoughts popped into my head.Oh, holy crap! My girls--my babies!--will grow up and they might read this garbage and think it's romantic. What if they start wishing to be just like Bella? What if they allow their lives to revolve around "beautiful" and mysterious boys? What if they lose the best parts of themselves in pursuit of an unrealistic, bastardized version of romantic love? They'll become pathetic losers. Weaklings with no identities, no goals to call their own. No one will respect them! They'll die alone! In vomit-filled gutters! Oh, the humanity!
Clearly I was being crazy, but can you blame me? Twilight mania had just set in--worldwide might I add. It was an ugly time in history.
I was upset Twilight was this Really Big Deal, had such a massive following. I hated that no one could shut up about it--not even me! I kept wondering what I could do to insure my girls wouldn't grow up to be useless human beings like Bella Swan. And then it came to me: keep teaching them. Encourage them to be themselves, to be proud of who they are. Teach about setting goals and what steps to take in order to accomplish them. Encourage them to think for themselves, teach them self-reliance.
There was a bunch of other things I resolved to do, but I couldn't figure out how to solve the pesky problem of the Twilight series and books that were similar. I was never going to forbid my girls from reading them, but I wanted them to be smart enough to see past all the glitter and not get too caught up in the fantasy.
I came up with the idea of building a little library, a collection made up of the best books. I wanted it to be something my girls could enjoy, so of course it needed a killer YA selection. But what books would I put there? It would have to contain more than just the classics, that I was sure, but was there any contemporary YA literature that was worthwhile? At that time I just didn't know.
And that, my fellow GoodReaders, is when I started reading everything YA in pursuit of awesome books with really great protagonists. Over the years I've read some heinous stuff, but I've also had the opportunity to read some truly beautiful literature. This book, Girl in the Arena, is, in some ways, among the best of the best. It contains a pretty solid message without being preachy. It brings up some legitimate questions, questions teenage girls should be asking themselves if they aren't already doing so. Questions I once asked myself, about who I was, what I stood for, how strongly I stood for it, what lengths I'd go in order to be true to my identity, and whether or not I cared how my actions might affect family members and other loved ones. This book? Asks all those questions and more. It introduces some interesting ideas, too. Honestly, I got lost within the pages of Girl in the Arena. In some ways it was a really great, near ideal, reading experience.
All of that said, this book is riddled with flaws. Errors of every sort, big and little. Glaring ones that made me want to give up on this book early on. The world-building is pretty weak in some places, non-existent in others. This book assumes I know exactly what's going on in the protagonists world. But see, I don't. I don't even know what year it's su
L pposed to be. I was never sold on the Gladiator culture, why they all did what they did. I didn't understand why anyone would adhere to such stringent rules, rules that interfered/controlled their personal lives so thoroughly. Especially when religion was in no way part of the equation. Was the government involved? What happened to the government, exactly? Where were the protestors, the people who opposed gladiatorial battles to the death? Where was PITA? Why weren't they throwing buckets of red paint at the gladiators who fought and killed animals in the arena?
The writing style was enough to make me want to poke my eyes out (until I got used to it). Instead of using quotation marks to indicate dialogue, the author used em dashes. At first I wasn't always sure who was saying what. It looks like this:
—Maybe we should stop eating meat.
—You better talk with Allison, I said. —The freezer is half cow.
—We could give it away.
—Before she gets home? I joked.
He got another knife out of the drawer and began to cut up the tomatoes.
—Sure, why not? he said earnestly.
See what I mean? Really annoying. And really, who writes like that?
There are other things that bothered me, but I don't care to go into all that, especially since I pretty much love this book despite all the flaws. I know it doesn't quite make sense considering how picky I can be. I can't say I completely understand why I feel the overwhelming need to overlook the glaring technical imperfections and give this book three stars, but I do.
This book just speaks to me on multiple levels. And no, it's not because of some convoluted love story (although, yeah, there is the beginnings of a love story but that isn't a major element of the book). It's just about a girl trying to do the "right" thing, whatever that may be, and not lose herself in the process. She wants more than what her upbringing says she's allowed to have. She wants to be more.
In the end she is and I can't imagine a more beautiful Happily Ever After than that. After all, that's what I want for myself and it's what I want for my girls.
Officially 3-stars. Unofficially 5-stars.