A Beautiful Thing Is Never Perfect: The Gallery of Unfinished Girls
July 25, 2017
HarperTeen provided a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
With a tagline like “Life is a work in progress,” winking up at you from the novel’s bold cover, you immediately know what you are in for. The book opens with a surprise piano that appears in high school student Mercedes Moreno’s front yard. She and her little sister, Angela, enlist the help of their landlord duplex neighbor to haul it inside their living room. From there, Mercedes’ inner life begins to unfold. We learn that she is a painter bereft of inspiration and that she is infatuated with her best friend, Victoria, but refuses to act on her feelings. We also learn Mercedes’ and Angela’s grandmother is in a coma, having recently suffered a stroke, so their mother is in San Juan, Puerto Rico, caring for her. The girls are alone in their side of the duplex. The story opens with Mercedes in a holding pattern, but for the sudden piano and the arrival of a new tenant: the mysterious and fascinating painter, Lilia.
Karcz’s characters are likeable in their messy, still-developing quality. The protagonist, Mercedes, struck me as funny from page one. She made little asides like, “What are we going to do, tape “lost piano” signs around the neighborhood? No way.” She was relatable, and as I read further, I admired her thoughtfulness and emotional intelligence. At one point, Mercedes reminisces about the boyfriends she used to have, saying, “I think we forgot sometimes that we were in charge just as much as they were.” The painful honesty in that one line really struck me. I was impressed with the way that Karcz handled the uncertainty of the teenage relationships in the story. The reader gets a feeling of authenticity and tenderness, even when events become chaotic and complicated. The interactions between the characters and their friendships feel natural and the story rang true to me, even with the elements of magical realism, because at its heart, The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is about relationships and different kinds of love.
The language in The Gallery of Unfinished Girls made me swoon with writer’s envy. It is alternately plain and poetic, neither descriptor detracting from the other, both fitting together in this delicious treat of a young adult novel. I particularly enjoyed this lyrical passage where Mercedes imagines the residents of a building she drives by:
“When do these women remember their grandmothers? Their mothers? How long have they kept a secret? Do they worry death has no color at all? Do they feel heavier at high tide? Are they sleepless like regret? This is the long way home.”
During the course of the novel, Mercedes discovers the Red Mangrove Estate, an artist’s colony housed in an abandoned high-rise where time and inspiration flow differently. Mercedes accepts this strange magic without reservations. The Gallery of Unfinished Girls juxtaposed perfection and its implicit stagnancy with the messy brilliance of life and change. Occasionally Karcz was a little heavy-handed with the theme, but she handled it gracefully for the most part. If there were ever a “go for it” book, this would be one.
The Gallery of Unfinished Girls has a great deal of heart, but lacks follow through for its ambitious beginning. The middle of the book floundered, while the last quarter felt rushed. Mercedes never has to deal with the consequences of her actions and the reader does not get the chance to see how her choices affected her or her sister. I understand not wanting to spell everything out in a conclusion, but Karcz drops some major bombshells near the end of the book that she did not earn. Near the end, The Gallery of Unfinished Girls reaches too far and tackles too much, too quickly. Karcz does not lay the groundwork well enough for the conclusion to seem anything except hurried and unsatisfying. Despite these critiques, Karcz succeeds with her young adult novel. I empathized with Mercedes and her messy, tangled life. Mercedes is as kind as you’d want a questioning young teen to be to themselves and I appreciated the matter-of-fact way that she approached her sexuality. The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is a compassionate coming-of-age novel for anyone, but especially the weird, sensitive, and questioning teenager.