If, like me, you are a reader who wants to turn and run whenever the phrase “coming-of-age novel” appears in conversation or in a blurb, it may seem that a book about two young women attending college in the early 1980s is not for you. But if you seek to understand how American consumerism became what it is today, or if you’ve ever felt like a skinful of secrets, I’ve got just the book for you, from a small press that reliably delivers exceptional novels about women and the worlds they inhabit.
Silver Girl is not really a coming-of-age novel, anyway. It’s not such a simple or insignificant book that it can be shunted into the pigeonhole of a particular genre and set aside to go quietly out of print. Silver Girl is an act of mesmerism, of misdirection; it appears slight and forgettable, but turns out to have more substance and permanence than half the novels on a given bookshelf. Thematically, it’s ambitious: irreconcilable conflicts regarding money abide within it, as well as enduring mysteries about female friendship and a spooky motif of displacement and replacement. Nothing is as it seems between its pages, or between its characters.
The two central characters of the novel are a nameless narrator and her best friend, Jess. The young women meet on moving-in day at the dorm of an unnamed university that is plainly Northwestern, in Chicago, and become best friends in that bonded, implacable way that only seems to exist between women in their late teens and early 20s. The narrator is from a horrifyingly dysfunctional, poverty-stricken family in Iowa, while Jess is from a relatively nice family with Chicago money. Each chapter unspools more and more information about these women, revealing their flaws, their desires, and some of their secrets. (No one will ever know all of the narrator’s secrets—not even the reader.) Instead of placing its events in chronological order, the book zigzags through seasons and incidents in an ordering strategy that feels random but probably isn’t. Such disorientation makes it hard for a reader to keep pace with the narrator’s comprehension of her own story, but the reader will inevitably lean in closer, invest more deeply, in order to follow along.
Part of what makes this novel so compelling is Leslie Pietrzyk’s stellar wordcraft. After committing an act of betrayal in a library bathroom, the narrator washes her hands, and then:
I wouldn’t leave behind even a used paper towel marking my presence, so I wiped my wet hands on my jeans, telltale dark streaks slashing my thighs.
Not only is this sentence a perfectly made image, it’s also a gesture to the clandestine act that has just occurred, and it performs sly characterization. The narrator uses as few resources as possible, because she has so little money; plus, she doesn’t want to take up space or be known. Every sentence in Silver Girl is this multilayered, this plugged in to the novel as a whole. Not every sentence has such beauty, but Pietrzyk has written every one just as carefully.
Still, the language of the book is not its primary pleasure. This novel, unlike so much contemporary literature, feels like a novel, not like an extended story. It’s a rare book that strikes this bell; the last one I remember reading was From Here to Eternity, which takes place across 10 months. The characters seem to genuinely live that time. They eat meals, they get restless, they sing songs, they make bad choices. They change imperceptibly, day by day, incident by incident, until the novel concludes with gestures we know the characters will make but hope they won’t. This same dynamic is at play in Silver Girl, which happens across three years. Jess and the narrator live through enormous changes, and small ones. They drink Tab together, they borrow each other’s clothes, they dance and watch TV and stoke each other’s fears about the Tylenol Killer (the novel’s setting in the early 1980s is contemporaneous to that episode). After the last page, the reader feels she has encountered a world entire, real people and situations that have just been waiting to be brought to life in the reading, rather than a series of canvas backdrops with bright mannequins puppeteered to look human.
The novel’s focus on money and class issues provides some of its most profound and naked passages.
For a while, I was saving money, planning to buy one for myself, but when I thought it through, I understood that even if I had the comforter, I wouldn’t have the Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown for frigid nights, and if I had the nightgown I wouldn’t have the Topsiders, and if I had the Topsiders (which, actually, I did have—three dollars at a thrift store) then I would need the Fair Isle sweater in blue and if I had it in blue, I would need it in pink and cream and heather…that there was no end to wanting and needing and imagining that just one more thing would be the thing, one more sweater, one more kiss, one more boy, one more anything. That endless yearning, that empty hunger, even when I knew it wasn’t sweaters I wanted (though also, actually it was). It was to not care how many sweaters I had; it wasn’t a number, but a word: enough. And that word was impossible, it seemed to me.
The narrator’s background, and her placement among mostly rich kids attending Northwestern, force most of her waking thoughts to be about money. It’s not greed, or an unnatural obsession with status symbols (the careful placement of which foreshadows the brand-driven consumerism that characterized the millennial years); it’s just that she notices, and cares, that she can never pay for groceries or meals out or school supplies, and Jess always can. Jess doesn’t notice, doesn’t care, but the unevenness in their relationship proves untenable. The novel peels off the layers of charisma surrounding Jess slowly, deliberately, and before we even realize it, her privilege appears hideous, her spoiled, careless attitude more monstrous than we ever imagined.
The narrator herself is no saint. In fact, she makes one bad choice after another: she fails to be empathetic in the face of various tragedies, she makes missteps with clothes, sex, and parents, and she leaves her sister in a situation she knows to be dangerous. These choices are all easy enough to understand, since the narrator has suffered terribly at the hands of her family and has no idea how to form healthy relationships. Besides, part of what confounds the narrator (and the reader, until she can spot the pattern) is the way sisters are displaced and replaced in this novel. Sisters act as mirrors, as hobbles, as parasites and sites of conflict. The death of Jess’s biological sister destabilizes the sisterly relationship between Jess and the narrator, and then a half-sister comes along to destabilize Jess herself. The narrator’s sister, Grace, disrupts her ambition to forget her family. She remains haunted by her invented stories of the Silver Girl, the stories she shares with Grace to keep her safe—which, of course, fail.
The Silver Girl didn’t string along in never-ending, world-saving adventures; she was invented fresh each time I told a story, meaning I didn’t have to remember what happened before. I could simply start with “once upon a time.” The Silver Girl had absolutely no history or past. We liked that about her.
Though she presents herself to Jess in the same way, as a girl without a history, the narrator’s real past continues to overwhelm her present choices. The reader doesn’t get a full accounting of this past, only gestures and whispers, but it’s enough to tell us that her backbone is formed of titanium and her skin of carbon steel. Even through all her mistakes, even though she lets no one into her mind and heart all the way, not even the reader, this central character is compelling and unforgettable.
As is this novel. It’s a novel in the finest, most challenging sense of the word. Although Silver Girl is complex and sometimes difficult to track, and the narrator’s motives for her destructive behavior only come clear toward its end, it is a singular, crystalline achievement, a book that will keep you thinking and feeling long after its final chapter.