“Your first love isn’t the first person you give your heart to – it’s the first one who breaks it.”
That line, on the cover flap of Lang Leav’s debut novel Sad Girls, is a quote from the book, but also a prose poem (from Leav’s 2014 collection Lullabies).
Can’t you just picture it as a meme, complete with a beautiful, tear-stained teenager staring out of a window? It’s the sort of ridiculous sentiment that speaks to kids whose hormones and lack of experience make it hard for them to think straight.
That line basically lets every manipulative b****** who’s treated a girl like dirt off the hook and, in Sad Girls, it’s uttered by the psychologist treating the protagonist, Audrey’s anxiety. Yes, a psychologist is supposed to have said those words. That line, which, in my opinion, totally romanticises abuse, is just one of so many things that are wrong with artist and poet Lang Leav’s debut young adult novel.
On one hand, you might say that with this book, Leav is simply feeding the romantic fantasies of emo teenage girls.
I, on the other hand, would call the author irresponsible, considering the average age of her huge fanbase. Because here is the story of a girl whose stupid, thoughtless actions (she tells a lie) have dire and irreversible consequences (the person she lied about commits suicide) and who then has the most amazing things happen to her.
I’m not saying that this (or any) novel has to teach anyone lessons or preach good behaviour, but then Sad Girls is being marketed as a coming-of-age story, which implies some degree of soul searching and transformation for Audrey.
However, not only does she never own up (not even to her psychologist) about what she did, we don’t even see her giving a whole lot of thought about what she has done and how the people around her have been affected.
To make matters worse, she is eventually let off the hook when someone else’s even more reprehensible actions are revealed. Her response to this reprieve confirms that, by the end of the novel, Audrey has become more of a selfish brat than she was at the start. Coming-of-age, my saggy old arse!
I’m sure you can tell by now that I am more than a little disturbed by Sad Girls. It’s not so much its problematic premise and subject matter that bother me, but the way they are inadequately addressed. Surely Leav’s fans deserve more than just a glossing over of tragedy, a cursory glance at mental illness, a simplistic presentation of bereavement and grief?
There are some dark and difficult issues raised in this novel and they deserve to be looked at more closely, to be explored more thoroughly. Sadly, Leav seems to prioritise creating a dream existence for her protagonist.
Once again, I think that this feeds into the escapist fantasies of her readers and I find it unsettling because the string of fabulous opportunities that present themselves to Audrey are never just distractions that she has to eventually turn away from in order to face reality; they keep on coming, hinting that Audrey can continue to ignore the truth and that something shiny and wonderful will always fall into her lap and make the unpleasantness go away.
Not only is the plot implausible but the characters are shallow and poorly developed, their physical appearance described in minute detail, their actions, especially when melodramatic and destructive, given space, but their motivations skimmed over or completely ignored.
It seems that what’s on the page must always be momentous, exciting, sexy. This in itself is not the problem. The problem is that the drama is all just unexamined spectacle. It’s not a way to get into the story; it’s not there to reveal the depths of Audrey’s soul; it’s not so we will understand her vile actions or the horrifying decision the dead girl’s boyfriend makes, or the book’s mad, totally screwed-up denouement. If only.
If only Leav had spent some paragraphs looking for answers; if only her characters had done some deep soul searching. She doesn’t, they don’t, and thus, even Twilight’s Bella Swan ends up looking like a fascinating and complicated person next to Audrey and her friends.
Then there’s the writing. It’s bad, especially the clumsy similes and metaphors that seem to be there just for effect: “I am a poet and my fans expect me to paint pictures with my words.”
Here is my “favourite”: “It felt like at that moment, every snowflake in that field was a teardrop and the whole world was crying for her.”
But what offends me the most about the book is Leav’s description of the suicide. No spoilers, but days after finishing the book, I’m still thinking about it and wondering: Was Leav careless or sneaky? Couldn’t she bothered to do some research? Or was this her idea of a twisted joke? Either way, I think it was unforgivable of her.
It’s the final nail in the coffin that I’m packing Sad Girls away in.
Author: Lang Leav
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing, young adult fiction