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What Girls Are Made of by Elana K. Arnold
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What Girls Are Made of

by Elana K. Arnold

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Showing 4 of 4
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, why not?” Ruth says.
“Do you believe in unconditional love?”
“Absolutely,” Ruth says. “It’s one of the most dangerous forces in the universe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Unconditional love is how dogs feel about their masters. Dogs love their masters no matter how badly they’re beaten, how rarely they’re fed, and how terribly they’re cared for. They don’t know any better than to love without conditions.”
“That’s not what I mean,” I say. “I mean, between people.”
“There is no unconditional love between people,” Ruth says. “That kind of love flows one way, like a dog to its master. [ . . . ] When someone loves unconditionally, they’re saying, ‘I am your dog. You are my god.’ That’s who unconditional love is for—dogs and their masters, fools and their gods.”

(pp. 168-169)

Elana K. Arnold’s What Girls Are Made Of is a thought-provoking and richly allusive novel. It is a study of the obsessive, subservient, first-love of so many young women, in which their own agency, wants, and needs are secondary to those of the object of their love. Often, girls have little awareness of this agency or even knowledge about how their bodies work or respond. When 16-year-old Nina becomes involved with Seth, whom she met in fifth grade and has romantically idealized for years, she goes to a Planned Parenthood clinic for “protection”. The nurse practitioner who examines her there offers to show her, help her understand her anatomy, and Nina, taken aback at the very idea, quickly declines.

Things, of course, don’t go well with Seth. Physically attractive he may be, but lovable or sensitive he is not. I think it’s fair to say that he is a selfish lout, but he certainly knows what he wants. Mind you, Nina isn’t particularly sensitive either. Obsessive adolescent love can do this to a person: remove any interest in anyone but the “beloved”. In stereotypical fashion, Nina ditches her best friend Louise in order to spend time with Seth, even while knowing how “not feminist” this is. Nina is also doing community service—in a dog shelter, a disturbing place where the vast majority of the poor, rejected animals end up being euthanized—to atone for a malicious act the previous year that she intended to humiliate Seth’s former girlfriend, an exotic Portuguese beauty called Apollonia Corado.

Arnold uses Nina’s mother—who (as a young woman) travelled to Italy to study art—to educate Nina about the history of female representation in art and the experiences of several female saints. When Nina’s father--a distant figure, more a rumour than a presence in the novel--“bailed” on the twentieth-wedding-anniversary trip to Rome so carefully planned by his wife, fourteen-year-old Nina had gone instead. There, her mother acted as a sort of docent in the many art galleries and churches the two visited, speaking frankly to her then fourteen-year-old daughter as one adult to another. Of particular significance was the trip the two took to see Bernini’s famous sculpture, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, in the Roman church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. There, Nina’s mother pointed out that Teresa’s sculpted expression is as much one of sexual ecstasy as religious. While fixation on Jesus may have felt protective against predatory males, the Catholic virgin martyr saints’ histories—which Nina claims to have heard as childhood bedtime stories from her mother—show that the virgins’ refusal to engage with men both titillated and infuriated these powerful males, provoking them to torture the beautiful and saintly young girls.

In the course of the novel, Arnold shows that Nina’s recollections of her mother’s many and frequent miscarriages, her experiences with her mother both at home and in Europe, and her interactions with people and dogs at the animal shelter help her understand herself when the relationship with Seth fails. Nina’s unwitting absorption of the cultural code of female passivity and objectification put me in mind of Simone de Beauvoir’s sharp observations in The Second Sex, which I read when I was a young adult. I likely missed a lot in that book, but I certainly remember de Beauvoir’s comments about females regarding themselves not as free subjects but as the objects of society’s—i.e., males’—gaze.

The copy of What Girls Are Made Of that I read includes a jacket-flap thumbnail biography of the author. Somewhat unusually, it tells us that the author writes books “for and about children and teens.” What Girls Are Made Of is certainly about a teen-aged girl, but it may be of more interest to adult women or older “young adult” readers. The content is intellectually sophisticated and makes demands that not all young adults are ready for. It is also very sexually frank—with a few more details than I feel are actually needed. Having said that, I’ve been surprised me by how matter-of-fact the teenagers I’ve known can be about sex.

In the end, my chief reservation about the book concerns characterization. I didn’t find Nina entirely convincing as a character. Her voice is too clear and articulate for her stated age. The excerpts of Nina’s writing (for an English project on magical realism) that are woven into the text are likewise too sophisticated and refined to pass as those of a sixteen or seventeen year old. I’ve read surprisingly polished work from fourteen-year-old kids, but Nina’s pieces are just too finely and artistically rendered to be credible. The only two significant adults in Arnold’s novel—Nina’s mother and the shelter manager, Ruth—are puppets in the hands of the author. They deliver commentary that instructs Nina on her journey--commentary which also amplifies the themes Arnold is preoccupied with. Another problem is that Nina’s parents are often conveniently absent to serve the needs of the plot. They are nowhere on site when Nina messes around with Seth nor are they aware of a significant crisis their daughter has to face. Towards the end of the book, the author conveniently implies that Nina’s mother’s distance is due to alcoholism.

In spite of the reservations I had about the novel, I found What Girls Are Made Of to be an interesting and thought-provoking read with some lovely writing in it. Thank you to my Goodreads friend, Melissa, for bringing the book to my attention.

For anyone interested in some of the art discussed in Arnold’s novel, I’ve provided a couple of links:

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160526-why-these-anatomical-models-are-not-di...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecstasy_of_Saint_Teresa#/media/File:Ecstasy_of_Saint_Teresa_September_2015-2a.jpg ( )
  fountainoverflows | Jan 31, 2018 |
I picked up _What Girls are Made Of_ because it was highly recommended by YA lit reviewers I trust. While quite well-written - compelling, almost - I don't get it. Maybe, because, as a YA lit professor once said, I am not the intended audience. I found it compelling but depressing. Nina is a high school student so at loose ends I feel sorry for her. Her parents are physically and emotionally distant, her mother revises their personal history on a dime ('You told me love is conditional.' 'I never said any such thing.' - when we know she did.). Her best friend seems shallow, and she is consumed by the attentions of a boy who uses her and casts her aside. Not exactly a rousing ad for 'It Gets Better.' ( )
  CDWilson27 | Dec 19, 2017 |
What Girls Are Made Of by Elana Arnold exposes teenage life through Nina’s current experiences as 16 year old interspersed with flashbacks and short, expository pieces that the reader comes to understand later in the book. The author really delves into Nina’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother and how it manifests itself in Nina’s desire for affection and love. I think this book is well written with an interesting twist on the typical YA narrative, and captures a lot the interior life of teenage girls. Readers should be aware of somewhat substantial sexual content that may not be appropriate for a lot 13-16 year olds. ( )
1 vote Hccpsk | Oct 18, 2017 |
It's sure not sugar and spice. A litany of the challenges a young woman goes through as related to young men, other young women, and all of the horrible things we do to each other. Could be a sleeper for the Printz. ( )
  Brainannex | Apr 3, 2017 |
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Sixteen-year-old Nina Faye navigates the difficult world of teenage relationships and dysfunctional family dynamics.

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