Trigger warning: Rape
There are many types of stories out there: some that make you laugh out loud, even after turning the last page; some that make you swoon from start to finish with a light and fluffy romance; and some that pull you out of yourself into the story's world, and once it lets go you need to take a deep breath to come back to yourself—and that's the kind of story that Girl Made of Stars is.
I first discovered author Ashley Herring Blake with her novel How to Make a Wish, enjoying her poetic and down-to-earth language and portrayal of a same-sex female (and interracial) relationship, with themes exploring parental abuse and neglect, so I had certain expectations coming into her new book. She not only met them, but exceed them.
The story centers on Mara, a young woman in high school, living her life with her twin brother, and trying to live her life on a day-to-day basis. Mara goes to art school with Owen, where she's trying to recover from , among other things, a break-up from a romantic relationship with her best friend Charlie. But one night, something horrible happens, and it changes everything in Mara's life. Suddenly the brother Mara thought she once knew seems to wear a stranger's face.
Girl Made of Stars is a beautifully written book, exploring themes of bisexuality, genderqueerness, sexual assault, the nuances and failings of the US justice system when it comes to sexual assault, and more. Blake's characters are pretty amazing in their complexity, starting with Mara, a girl who begins her own feminist activist group at school, but still carries her trauma from what happened to her in painful silence. Other characters like Mara's best friend and love interest Charlie, a swoon-worthy genderqueer teen and talented musician, who vocalizes their struggles with defining gender and the frustration of needing to come out to their parents more than once in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. Even Owen, the primary antagonist of the story, is presented as a detailed person, shown as a caring brother while never negating the consequences of his actions.
Blake presents not one but two nuanced stories in the book about sexual assault. The first, from which the book's central conflict arises, centers on Hannah (one of Mara's best friends), and the second from Mara herself. Hannah's story centers into the territory of date rape, in which her assailant was her also her boyfriend, Owen, while Mara was targeted by a respected teacher in middle school, a fact that she kept secret from her hands and family for three long years. Blake gains nuance from presenting more than one type of story connected to sexual assault since often in the media we are exposed to limited portrayals of this nature. We are often fed the same tired narratives that sexual assault only happens within certain contexts (a dark alley at night) or to certain types of people (sex workers). Limited narratives contribute to this idea that if women are careful enough, if we behave a certain way, that we can protect ourselves with obedience to the patriarchy's ideas of what a woman should be, (whatever the hell they even are).
This novel is not an easy read, and I don't mean that in terms of its language, which is beautiful. The story presents a difficult situation, and rather than using black-and-white morality that often comes within these types of stories, explores sexual assault in a thoughtful manner. The author clearly shows respect to this subject, as seen in the story itself and in an open letter to her children, discussing rape culture in honest, thoughtful way. Blake joins the ranks of other authors who have used the power of fiction to discuss very real issues in our world, such as Pointe by Brandy Colbert and Speak by Lauren Halse Anderson, while creating her own, unique narrative. While it might be triggering to some readers people, Girls Made of Stars presents a emotionally complex read that might be cathartic to those who are trapped in their silence, as well as a learning opportunity to acknowledge the faults in our society that manifests that silence.