A review of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin – that’s also about me.
Welcome to the first episode (?) of My Memoir Life! This series will combine two of my favorite things: nonfiction and myself. You can expect book reviews liberally seasoned with my experience of reading them, how they made me feel, and how they relate to my life. Should you expect an objective review of any given book? Absolutely not! Should you tell me your feelings and experiences and objections about these reviews? Abso-friggin-lutely!
With all that aside, let’s dive right into my review or whatever.
Dead Girls is marketed as a collection of essays that explores the ‘dead girl trope’ – that obsession we have with dead girls in books, movies, television shows, and everywhere else. In reality, the book isn’t really about that. I mean, there are a few essays at the beginning that are each a fabulous blend of literary and cultural criticism mixed with personal essayism. Soon enough, though, the essays change to other topics – mostly Los Angeles, tbh – but retain the same essayistic vibe. And they’re very, very, very obviously highly influenced by Joan Didion. And you know what? I was here for it.
Many of the reviews I read marked Dead Girls down because of the…false advertising, I guess? And it’s pretty funny in a way because a lot of those readers were basically clamoring for more dead girls when the whole idea of the marketing and initial essays is about our desire for MOAR DEAD GIRLS. But I get it – readers expect to read what the book jacket and reviews say. And Bolin’s dissection (for lack of a better word) of the dead girl trope is very strong and perhaps there should be more of it.
Part one has four essays that examine dead girls, beginning with “Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show.” This one does a good job of pinpointing the commonalities between the shows and movies that center on dead girls – including unexpected ones like Pretty Little Liars. While I didn’t feel like I learned a lot of new ideas from it, having thought a lot about this topic and read some other critiques and essays about dead girl stuff, I just really got into her writing style and thought process. It was interesting to follow her brain around and she’s just a great essayist.
The Dead Girl Show’s most notable themes are its two odd, contradictory messages for women. The first is to cast girls as wild, vulnerable creatures who need to be protected from the power of their own sexualities.
“Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show”
The three others in this section have the same tone and focus, but they give the reader insight into Bolin’s own obsession with the dead girl obsession. She pulls from real life and literature, cultural phenomena like Gone Girl and Serial.
The essays following the dead girl essays are the kind that I like, but they’re also not going to appeal to everyone. I think Joan Didion groupies (of which I am one) will dig her Didion vibe and all the talk of Los Angeles and goodbye-to-all-thatness.
In writing this I am realizing that I remember a lot more of the earlier essays and remember mostly just feelings and Los Angeles and Joan Didion from the middle ones. I do, however, remember one called “A Teen Witch’s Guide to Staying Alive” because it covers a topic I was very interested in in the 90s – witchcraft. Bolin writes about this godawful book that I definitely owned by Silver RavenWolf. I particularly loved this one not just because of the nostalgia of that teenage witchcraft but because Bolin infuses it with her own connections to other works of literature. And food and disordered eating. It’s easy for me to see how this relates to her work with interrogating the dead girl – in fact, the essays in Part 3: Weird Sisters all seem to also be interrogating girlhood in general in a way that relates culturally to some of the dead girl stuff.
I did really like the essays in that third part. In fact, as I’m paging through all these essays again, I’m seeing that I liked the majority of them, even if they aren’t all themed to the title of the book. I personally like essay collections that meander, and Bolin does a fantastic job of infusing her work with essayistic meandering and Montaignian explorations via literature and culture.
Dead Girls is worth a read, and I think readers who either A) super love Joan Didion stuff (and will henceforth be swept right into her LA essays) or B) can just be cool with a loosely connected bunch of interesting personal essays will dig it. I also think anyone who understands ahead of time what they’re getting out of this collection and doesn’t need a full book of dead girls will find it engaging and insightful.