Spoilers ahead. Trigger warning: anxiety, suicide.
Up until Sad Girls, Lang Leav’s work has mostly been in the genre of poetry. Her books, such as Love & Misadventure and Lullabies, have been received with mixed opinions. Some have praised her for bringing poetry down from its ivory tower, others have criticized her verse for being cliche, emotionally immature, and even toxic. Full disclosure, I’m more in the second camp.
But when it was announced that Leav would be releasing her first novel, I thought there was reason to hope. If verse afforded her the leeway to dwell in a moment and wallow in a feeling, undertaking a novel would require Leav to submit to the restraints of fiction. Plot, cause and effect, character development, believable motivations, clear and plain language. There will always be exceptions to those rules, but those are the general breaks.
What we find in Sad Girls though are well, yeah, those things, but executed poorly.
Sad Girls begins with Audrey, a high school student reflecting on the consequences of her having spread a rumor about another girl named Ana, and blaming herself for Ana’s apparent suicide. Audrey eventually meets Rad, Ana’s then-boyfriend, and the two gravitate towards each other. What follows is a series of conflicts founded on both attraction and dishonesty.
We as an audience are self-reflexive enough to know that the Young Adult genre isn’t inherently immature or juvenile, that it can be smart and striking without resorting to melodrama. It’s for this reason (among many) that Sad Girls is so disappointing, in that it seems to embody so many of the negative stereotypes of the YA genre.
Both Audrey and Rad have a tendency to romanticize sadness, justifying impulses to seek conflict as processes of meaning-making. It’s common ground that both characters don’t seem to recognize, instead owing their chemistry to shared depth (“I can talk to you about stuff that I’ve never been able to tell anyone else” is something that comes up a lot), which is given so much emphasis that it unrealistically eclipses the impact of Ana’s death.
Most of the other characters in the book, such as Audrey’s actual boyfriend Duck and one of her best friends Lucy, don’t feel like characters with lives of their own, but are treated more like props, through which Leav can reveal how messed up Audrey’s psychology is. This lack of attention given to minor characters shows in how so many smaller conflicts are left unresolved at the end. What about Candela and her boyfriend Dirk — the man supposedly responsible for her heavy drug use — who magically cleans up enough to be a marry-able man? What about Duck, who after meeting someone new (after Audrey cheated on him with Rad) is so conveniently at peace that he reassures Audrey that everything happens for a reason?
At the same time, I don’t want to believe there’s such a thing as an irredeemably bad book. Leav’s language is, as expected, approachable. (Also excessive, in that six lines of expository dialogue can be traded for one sentence, but approachable nonetheless). The book also has its moments — I found myself personally invested in Audrey’s relationship with her mother who, speaking from her experience of infidelity and discontent, tells her daughter not to repeat her mistakes. And to the author’s credit, when a character I liked died, I literally screamed.
All those potentially redeeming qualities come crashing down at the end. In Leav’s attempt at a shock twist, Audrey’s entire journey as the novel’s protagonist feels like a waste of time, and reconfirms Leav’s unfortunate attitude of looking at love as a feeling defined by pain.
Fiction is of course entitled to tackle controversial topics like suicide and anxiety, and some of the best fictional characters in history have courted and even embraced delusion. But reading Sad Girls feels less like a striking portrait of what love and deception can do to the mind, and more like watching that one friend who always gets into more trouble get into even more trouble, all the while making you regret how forgiving you are in expecting everything to get better. Until Leav gets it into her head that bleeding your heart out doesn’t automatically mean depth, she will remain in this creative and emotional comfort zone — one she seems entirely content to wallow in.