Dreams of Significant Girls

Cristina García.  Dreams of Significant Girls.  New York: Simon and Schuster BFYR, 2011.  238 pgs.

To borrow again the Insatiable Booksluts‘ fun rating style, I give this book somewhere between 3.75 and 4 out of 5 Arabian stallions shipped from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal, through the Mediterranean up to the French Riviera, and then up to Switzerland.

As you can see, I haven’t exactly been plugging away at my reading wishlist.  It’s taken me ages to finally get around to this one.  And I’ve removed some titles that I no longer feel like reading.  I did read All My Friends Are Dead, and I did very much enjoy the morbid hilarity, but somehow I don’t feel like I have all that much to say about it.  There’s a dinosaur whose friends are all dead.  And a yeti whose friends are all hoaxes.  And a purse whose friends are all sooooo last season.  I recommend it for a good laugh.

Ok, moving on.  Dreams of Significant Girls is an account of three consecutive summers, 1971 to 1973, at a Swiss boarding school for very privileged girls (girls with “second and third homes,” who are promised Porsches and BMWs when they are old enough), narrated by roommates Vivien Wahl, Ingrid Baum, and Shirin Firouz.  Of course they don’t get along right away, and of course they all (well, except for Shirin at first) have family issues back home they are trying to escape.  And of course they quickly become best friends for life.

But it’s actually not as cliché as it sounds.  Sure, in some ways it reminds me of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (the movie; I haven’t read the books).  Vivien reminds me a little of Carmen as the story’s anchoring voice — she gets the first and last section, though the rest of the book is split evenly among her, Ingrid and Shirin.

But ultimately, it is a pretty unique story with very engaging characters who I genuinely cared about by the end.  Though, at times, Ingrid’s “Bad Girl” personality seemed overdone…I almost rolled my eyes when she mentioned sleeping with one of her teachers back home.  Oh yeah, Note:  lots of sex talk in this story.

What I liked:

  • The theme of cultural fusion — again, not as cliché as it might sound.  Vivien is Cuban-American and Jewish.  Ingrid is German-Canadian.  Shirin is an Iranian princess.  But their different backgrounds aren’t as important as their commitment to somehow stay in touch even when social and political changes, and just life in general, make it difficult.
  • The theme of what’s really significant in life — what’s worth getting upset over and what should just be let go.  The word comes up here and there, but not in an annoying This-Is-The-Theme-Get-It? way.
  • The moment the roommates first click as friends:  Shirin and Vivien are mock-discussing their chances of fighting off Ingrid if she tries to choke them in their sleep, having heard of her apparent attempt to drown a girl during water ballet (did I mention Ingrid’s the Bad Girl?).  And then Ingrid pulls out a pack of Marlboros, offers them to her roommates, and they sit for a while, contentedly smoking and not hating each other’s company.

Disclaimer, of course:  you’ve seen the ads about people who get debilitating tobacco-related illnesses, right?  I have no interest in starting the habit myself.

The reason I liked that moment, though, was that it reminded me of a story my aunt once told me, about how she and a college roommate first became friends.  They’d both gotten back from class or something, or maybe it was their first night in the dorm before the semester began, and the roommate offered my aunt a cigarette.  And just like for the girls in the book, that moment of companionable smoking sealed their friendship.

  • One more element of the story that stood out was the one of two huge coincidences that didn’t feel contrived.  The characters even explicitly think about how unbelievable this revelation is, and yet it does feel like something that would happen in real life.

What I didn’t:

Besides the other huge coincidence — the one that felt more like an excuse for OMG-drama — there were a few other logic/believability-defying moments.

  • Would it really take that long for that many pills to affect someone? (I do like how they’re described as looking “like baby sunflowers.”)
  • Right, so the moment [Proper Noun] decides to take up photography, the very first pictures she takes are amazing and sensational and exhibition-quality?
  • Isn’t [Proper Noun] concerned that her family might learn about those nude photos if [Proper Noun] includes them in her exhibition?  I know it’s the 70s and there’s no Facebook or Youtube, but still.  What if the exhibition goes on tour?
  • Right, so the moment [Proper Noun] starts really experimenting with her cooking, she’s a prodigy?
  • The summer romances.  *shrug*  Meh.

Overall:

A fairly quick read with very interesting, relatable characters.  And an interesting combination of believable, serious Real Life moments and Pfft, yeah right moments.  Even in the latter moments, though, it’s easy enough to suspend disbelief and accept them as events in a fictional world.

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