by Kayla Rae Whitaker Published by Random House
on January 31st 2017 Genres: Contemporary Fiction Pages:
384 Source: Netgalley Amazon Goodreads
FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Goodreads Synopsis: She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.
At a private East Coast college, two young women meet in art class. Sharon Kisses, quietly ambitious but self-doubting, arrives from rural Kentucky. Mel Vaught, brash, unapologetic, wildly gifted, brings her own brand of hellfire from the backwaters of Florida. Both outsiders, Sharon and Mel become fervent friends, bonding over underground comics and dysfunctional families. Working, absorbing, drinking. Drawing: Mel, to understand her own tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.
A decade later, Sharon and Mel are an award-winning animation duo, and with the release of their first full-length feature, a fearless look at Mel’s childhood, they stand at the cusp of success. But while on tour to promote the film, cracks in their relationship start to form: Sharon begins to feel like a tag-along and suspects that raucous Mel is the real artist. When unexpected tragedy strikes, long-buried resentments rise to the surface, threatening their partnership—and hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.
“An engrossing, exuberant ride through all the territories of love—familial, romantic, sexual, love of friends, and, perhaps above all, white-hot passion for the art you were born to make . . . I wish I’d written The Animators.”—Emma Donoghue, author of Room and The Wonder.
* * * * *
Buckle your seat belts because Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel The Animators is one wild ride! The novel follows the lives of Mel and Sharon, two art students who meet in college, become fast friends when they realize they have a shared passion of making cartoons, and who eventually become business partners as well. Whitaker weaves together a compelling tale as Mel and Sharon navigate the ups and downs of their personal and professional relationships, as they experience success, conflict, frustration, family drama, love, loss, tragedy, and pretty much everything in between. Their lives become so entwined that they become more like family than just friends. Whitaker does a beautiful job of realistically portraying the many layers of their relationship, while also exploring such themes as using art as catharsis, loss of innocence, addiction, dysfunctional families, and more.
What I Enjoyed:
Mel and Sharon – I immediately fell in love with Whitaker’s main characters. They are basically yin and yang and it’s fascinating to watch the balancing act that is basically their relationship. Mel is outspoken with a larger than life personality. She’s brash and unapologetic and you literally just never know what’s going to come out of her mouth next. Sharon, on the other hand, is more the wallflower type. She’s a small town girl who spends a lot of time trying to figure out how in the world she has even gotten to this point in her life. As she and Mel experience major success with one of their cartoons and embark on a press tour to promote their work, Sharon often seems awkward and out of place, especially when compared to Mel and the way she just seems to eat up the spotlight and the attention. Mel comes across as the driving force behind their projects, with Sharon being relegated to more of a workhouse role. Because Sharon is deemed the more responsible of the duo, it often falls on her to try to reel Mel in and make her act more professionally as they make their required public appearances. Whitaker very realistically portrays the emotions that this kind of situation would easily generate – the jealousy, the resentment, the growing tension as Mel turns more and more to drugs and alcohol thus increasing her erratic behavior, and of course, Sharon’s feeling of not knowing if she even really belongs in this world that they’ve been thrown into. Is she really talented in her own right or is she just riding Mel’s coattails?
I got so attached to these two ladies and became so invested in their friendship working out that I found myself wanting to yell at them whenever either one of them did something to upset the balance: “OMG, get your act together, Mel!” or “Snap out of it, Sharon! You know you’re better than this!”
I actually almost lost faith in Mel at one point because she goes so far off the rails with the drugs and erratic behavior, but then when an unexpected medical incident almost kills Sharon and leaves her with a daunting recovery ahead of her, it is Mel who shows up to help — even though they aren’t even on speaking terms at the time of the incident. Mel is there with her every second of every day as she fights her way back from near death. That’s friendship.
Themes: This novel is just so rich in themes. Aside from tackling the dynamics of Sharon and Mel’s friendship, another theme that really struck me was the exploration of how living in an unsupportive environment can shape who you grow up to be. Sharon and Mel both come from the land of dysfunctional families. Mel’s mother is actually in prison and her influence on Mel is the focus of their first successful cartoon, Nashville Combat. Sharon’s childhood was a little more stable than Mel’s, but coming from a small town where no one EVER went away to school, her family basically never acted as though they were proud of her accomplishments and acted as though they resented her for going away to school. These feelings clearly contributed to her sense of self-worth or lack thereof.
Another theme that I found interesting was the use of art as catharsis. In the novel, Mel and Sharon decide to use their passion for art as a way to take control over and work through some traumatic events that shaped their lives. While on the one hand, this is clearly cathartic for them and an incredibly brave act because they are basically putting their lives, and specifically their pain, on view for the world to see, the act also comes at a cost. As one of Sharon’s childhood friends points out when he objects to being included in their project, it’s not just their lives on display, but also the lives of everyone else who played a role in the events being depicted. Sharon and Mel dismiss his objections, but it really got me thinking about how Mel’s mother, in particular, must have felt seeing herself exposed to the world as some kind of monster. Is using your art to work through your own painful experiences worth the cost, which is potentially causing others pain? I love a book that leaves me with something to think about afterwards and this question has been on my mind a lot since I finished The Animators. I imagine this is a question that many artist have to weigh in their minds if considering this kind of personal artistic expression.
Was there anything I didn’t like?
One potential pitfall for some readers could be all of the animation/cartooning talk. Since the novel does explore, to a large extent, the professional lives of Mel and Sharon, and therefore their creative processes, there is a lot of information about the cartooning/animation process. Much of it was over my head since I know nothing about art, but thankfully Whitaker doesn’t just do a huge info dump — instead, she weaves it throughout the novel, giving the reader just a little at a time so it’s not overwhelming or dry and boring.
One area I would have liked a bit more detail on was Mel and Sharon’s time in college together. The beginning of their friendship was so touching and engaging as they bonded and realized that they had this shared passion. I wanted to read so much more about that, so I felt a little cheated when I turned the page and realized we were jumping ahead in time. I got over it of course since I clearly enjoyed the book, but it was still a little disappointing.
Who Would I recommend The Animators to?
I would recommend The Animators to anyone who enjoys a realistic portrayal of a dynamic friendship. It’s not a light read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a rich and compelling story with layer up on layer. I think The Animators will end up being a popular book club read next year because it explores so many issues that are perfect for in-depth discussions.
The book does deal, in part, with addiction and some other darker themes of a sexual nature, so I wouldn’t recommend it to younger readers.
* * * * *
Rating: A solid 4 stars
About Kayla Rae Whitaker
Kayla Rae Whitaker’s work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, BODY, Bodega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly, American Microreviews and Interviews, and others, and she is a regular contributor to “American Micro Reviews and Interviews” and “Split Lip Magazine.” She holds a BA from the University of Kentucky and an MFA from New York University. After many years of living in Brooklyn, she returned to Kentucky, her home state, in 2016 with her husband and their geriatric tomcat, Breece D’J Pancake.
Website | Twitter | Facebook