“From age 18 on, I had a partner, a kindred spirit. I had a friend. Someone bound and determined to keep me from the worst in myself.”
The close bond between two people that, at times, tests the strength of a friendship is the foundation upon which The Animators is built upon.
The protagonists in author Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel are Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses, two girls who are polar opposites, personality-wise: Sharon, from rural Kentucky, is fiercely ambitious but lacks confidence in her abilities while Mel, hailing from the backwaters of Florida, is brash, unapologetic and gifted.
Meeting in a private college in the East Coast, the two girls were initially sceptical about each other, believing the other to be pretentious and “full of herself”. (As Sharon possess a more rounded figure, she was initially insecure about Mel’s comment, believing it to be about her body.)
Before long, Sharon and Mel discover they have a few things in common: both have had difficult family lives; both come from working class backgrounds; both are outsiders and do not fit in with the rich preppy crowd of their college; both have a healthy appetite for sex (women for Mel, men for Sharon); both love cartoons; and both share a love for drawing. Through their common traits, both girls form a tight bond spanning decades.
Though Whitaker uses the time in college as the foundation for their relationship, The Animators arguably takes off once Sharon and Mel set off into the working world.
A quarter into the novel, the duo have their big critical and commercial break (and with it a slew of dramatic incidents) with their first feature film: a story based on Mel and her drug-addicted prostitute mother’s life. Not long after the film is released, Mel’s mother dies and both girls go to Florida to identify the body. This act unearths years of repressed anger and sorrow within Mel. With Sharon by her side, Mel manages to sort out whatever twisted issues she may have with her late mother and make her peace.
In Florida, misfortune strikes, with Sharon succumbing to a stroke. Her ill-health consumes Sharon, eradicating any self-confidence she may have in her ability as a creator and animator, and her standing as an equal partner of Vaught and Kisses.
To recover from her stroke, both Sharon and Mel move to Kentucky where Sharon is forced to reconcile with her estranged mother. It is at this juncture that the plot seems a bit rehashed: like Mel in Florida, Sharon has to face the demons that drove her out of Kentucky all those years ago.
A few dramatic incidents cause a rift between Sharon and Mel, and family issues annoy Sharon. She and Mel head to Louisville where they run into Teddy, a boy from Sharon’s past. As Sharon and Teddy set up home together, Sharon and Mel begin to create again, this time using Sharon and Teddy’s childhood as the basis of their next film, which is (somewhat predictably) a critical and commercial success. Perhaps to create drama, Whitaker decides that instead of basking in their good fortune, Sharon should receive less-than-pleasant revelations about who Teddy really is, which leads to disagreements and melodrama with Mel, which seems repetitive and irrelevant.
Though not a bad effort, The Animators would be better if it was edited down. One gets the feeling that Whitaker threw in scenes, convoluted plotlines (like Teddy’s parentage) and dialogue that goes nowhere just to meet the word count. Mel’s less-than-sparkling family life works better than our encounter with Sharon’s mother because Mel’s mother died first; Sharon’s backwater family life (with echoes of incest) seems like a rehash of Mel’s story, only with more (white) trash added.
The highlight of the novel is arguably the creative process between Sharon and Mel, with one vomiting ideas out at a rapid pace and the other translating them into graphics and storylines, which Whitaker describes in acute detail. Kudos to Whitaker for focusing on this aspect of her protagonists’ relationship, as it saves The Animators from being an endless repetitive drama.
For a first effort, The Animators is a fair novel.
Those who prefer their reading material to have a little less melodrama should give this a miss.
Author: Kayla Rae Whitaker
Publisher: Random House, fiction