I think part of what makes me such a heavy reader is the fact that I love books like I love people. Because quite frankly, books are very much like people in so many ways. They speak of lives and hold secrets. They keep you company, they become a refuge. You can love or hate them. They can have odd first impressions and feelings that you could shake off a few days later or probably they could linger a little bit longer than you think they would, and if you’re lucky, sometimes they can also change your life.
And strangely enough, reading Alice Hoffman’s lovely novel Local Girls (1999), made me think that aside from a lifetime love affair, books could also offer friendship—tender, heartfelt, warm. It’s a quick, light read which is poetically narrated in vignettes of short stories by its central character, Gretel Samuelson, about the lives of women and others around her. If this book is a walking person, it’s definitely close to a picture of someone who could seamlessly be a candidate for being best-friend material, mostly because it explores the theme of friendship between women so magically beautiful. In Hoffman’s heroine’s very own words in the book:
“It was the sort of beauty you feel so deeply it becomes contagious and somehow makes you feel beautiful too.”
Ultimately, the book is about Gretel and Jill, two best friends who grew up living in houses that are basically next to each other. It’s this kind of nostalgic childhood that I rarely read in American Fiction, and this one’s the best of its kind. Also, I find it so playful of author Alice Hoffman to derive her protagonists names from two of fairy tales and nursery rhymes’ popular duos: Gretel (from Hansel and Gretel) and Jill (from Jack and Jill). Just an observation which tickled me pink. Anyway the story unfolds like this:
“Jill and I have known each other our whole lives. One house separates our houses but we act as if it doesn’t exist. We met before we were born and we’ll probably still know each other after we die. At least, that’s the way we’re planning it.”
It’s so disarmingly sweet from the get-go that I didn’t have trouble loving the book even from just the first few pages alone. It’s filled with a simplicity so endearing, sprinkled with poetic goodness that makes each sentence so sublime and surreal. And when I say each sentence, I mean it. This reminds me a lot of Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, where I mentioned how much I want to underline the entire book because it’s beautiful from the first page down to the last. Local Girls is no different. Every line is so memorable and moving that I wanted to quote everything from hilarious paragraphs from their early teenage years about crushes and infatuation:
“Jill told me that when you’re really in love, you know right away. I’m not exactly sure how this happens. Is it like a flash of lightning? Like an angel tapping you on the shoulder? Or is it similar to choosing a puppy? You think you’re picking the cutest one, but really you wind up going home with the one who keeps insisting on climbing into your lap.”
to shiver-inducing lines about the world and life in general:
“It was late but we could hear traffic on the Southern State Parkway, even though it was Christmas, and snowing so hard. You had to wonder who all these people in their cars were leaving behind and who they were driving toward, and if they knew that in the distance, the echo of their tires on the asphalt sounded like a river, and that to someone like me, it could seem like the miracle I’d been looking for.”
Even her one-liners shines with a sadness:
“…he had a way of taking your hand which made it clear he’d have to be the one to let go.”
Moreover, I liked the characters’ growth in the span of their individual stories. Admittedly, growth is the defining factor of Young Adults Literature which really captivates and endears me as a reader. There’s just something so heart-tugging at reading people turn over a new leaf or find a different reflection staring back at them from the mirror. I love how one day changes everything for eternity. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. Truth be told, Alice Hoffman is amazing at doing exactly just that.
Look how she presents Gretel’s cocoon so harmlessly sympathetic right at the very beginning:
“I could hardly get a boy to look at me. All right, they’d look, they’d even take me out, but no one asked for a second date. I was too nasty, a real wise guy, and all the boys could tell what my rotten disposition was. Deep down, I wanted a commitment with a capital C. To get anywhere with me, a boy would have to sign his undying loyalty with his own blood.”
And then look at how Gretel beautifully grew into a butterfly just a few years later:
“In the darkest hour of winter, when the starlings had all flown away, Gretel Samuelson fell in love. It happened the way things are never supposed to happen in real life, like a sledgehammer, like a bolt from out of the blue. One minute she was a seventeen year-old senior in high school waiting for a Sicilian pizza to go; the next one she was someone whose whole world had exploded, leaving her adrift in the Milky Way, so far from earth she was walking on stars.”
It’s the kind of book that tells you that you are understood, and it’s okay. Oh I loved it a lot, and I’d be re-reading and re-reading it over and over again in the future, I suppose. I know for a fact that Alice Hoffman’s books are widely loved and praised by many, and Local Girls is a great introduction to her work. I will definitely be in the hunt for the rest of her books, for sure.