Chloe’s older sister, Ruby, is the girl everyone looks to and longs for, who can’t be captured or caged. When a night with Ruby’s friends goes horribly wrong and Chloe discovers the dead body of her classmate London Hayes left floating in the reservoir, Chloe is sent away from town and away from Ruby.
But Ruby will do anything to get her sister back, and when Chloe returns to town two years later, deadly surprises await. As Chloe flirts with the truth that Ruby has hidden deeply away, the fragile line between life and death is redrawn by the complex bonds of sisterhood.
With palpable drama and delicious craft, Nova Ren Suma bursts onto the YA scene with the story that everyone will be talking about.
You guys remember when I read 17 & Gone and I was confused but also in love? Like right off the bat? Yeah. Same story here. Imaginary Girls is tricky, because the summary and parts of the story make you wonder if this story is supernatural or contemporary. Ashley recently posted a review of Golden, a book that is her definition of near-perfect contemporary, and this, Imaginary Girls, is an example of mine. Isn’t it amazing the scope of one tiny subgenre of YA? And once again, the romance is pretty much nonexistent, limited mostly to Ruby’s “boyfriends,” poor souls who are really Ruby’s slaves, and Chloe’s unrequited crush on a boy named Owen. The summary makes it seem like the book is about London and her death, but really, this is the story of sisters. Ruby is the star of their tiny mountain town, and she can do pretty much whatever she wants. The town operates around her like an old movie, and shopkeepers put “her” shade of lipstick behind the counter so only Ruby can wear it. What? I never got what was so great about Ruby other than her looks, but looks can be everything, especially in a small town. Chloe is, as she says herself, an “echo” of Ruby, meaning Chloe looks a little like her but has none of the manipulative charm. Chloe sees herself as a part of Ruby and never really tries to gain any independence from her. Chloe’s time spent away from Ruby lasts a few chapters at most. Ruby is a bad person, manipulative in the worst way, and she seems to recognize that her small-town stardom won’t translate anywhere else. Ruby loves Chloe in her own way, but still, she uses Chloe in her machinations. In addition to this story of sisters, the drowned town of Olive becomes almost like a ghost constantly fluttering just out of reach.
That time apart, though short page-wise, serves to give Chloe a little skepticism about her sister. Chloe starts realizing that things aren’t perfect just because she’s back with Ruby, and Chloe seems better at questioning Ruby’s motives. Meanwhile, one of the “surprises” from the summary shows up, and Chloe, at first afraid, eventually realizes she has to solve this mystery herself. The thing I love about Suma’s novels is not only the way she writes, though that’s what made me want to read this novel after 17 & Gone, but also how she doesn’t always tie up loose ends. Sometimes her endings feel a little unsatisfying because the narrator is still unreliable or can’t be saved at all. In a standalone romance, that would be annoying, but in this ethereal, hazy world of upstate New York, it all works out perfectly. Ruby is just so wretched, such a spoiled girl, living this life of luxury at the expense of others and their feelings. Chloe isn’t immune to this, though she’d like to think she is. She says things like “half the town is in love with Ruby and she never asked them to be,” which, of course she did, Chloe, just not using those exact words. Ruby is like one of those lights that mosquitoes can’t resist. Ruby can be lethal, I think, and everyone knows it, including Chloe. I can’t review the rest of the novel the way I want to without spoiling, so let me say, remember: nothing is as it seems in a Nova Ren Suma novel. Let the words wrap around you and carry you through the story. You’ll enjoy it, trust me.
WARNING: Here be spoilers.
When London returns and begins playing a bit bigger of a role, I started to wonder some things. Did Ruby type up a fake obituary to send to Chloe to punish her for leaving? Did Chloe ever hear that London was dead from anyone other than Ruby? I started getting frustrated with Chloe, because she thinks Ruby treats her as an equal instead of just another follower. Even their own mother is afraid of Ruby, and for some reason, Chloe thinks Ruby lets her in on all her devious plans. Chloe. It’s time to disengage a little, please. Rachel Hartman wrote a good review of this novel on Goodreads and mentions the stage in a baby’s life where zie realizes they’re separate from their mothers. “Mom likes squash and I don’t and that’s okay!” or “Mom isn’t always right and that’s okay because we’re human.” Chloe never had this stage. She doesn’t eat raisins because Ruby doesn’t. Chloe thinks Ruby is magic and has no sense of self outside her sister and she never gains one. When Ruby disappears, Chloe can’t believe Ruby won’t return or doesn’t still exist. She’s Ruby, and to Chloe, this means she can move mountains. It’s more than a little disturbing to witness.
The problem is that you can’t tell if Ruby’s suicide was really a suicide or if there really were monstrous Olive residents still lurking below. With 17 & Gone, it was explained to us in the final third that Lauren had schizophrenia and that was why she was seeing the missing girls. With Imaginary Girls, it sounds like Ruby really could have sacrificed herself to Olive to save Chloe. The ending is vague, and that’s all right. I loved it, the whole thing, the whole experience that is a Nova Ren Suma book.