Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Kayla Rae Whitaker’s novel, The Animators, in exchange for an honest review.
PLOT – Two young women, each escaping tumultuous childhoods, meet at a prestigious liberal arts college in upstate New York. They bond, not only over their talent in the visual arts and their love of obscure animation, but also their similar roots. Sharon Kisses is from rural Kentucky, raised among alcoholics and a neighbor with a life-altering secret. Mel Vaught hails from Florida, with a mother in prison. Mel and Sharon shift from classmates to business partners, moving into a studio apartment in New York City, which also serves as their art studio. The women build a cult following by creating highly acclaimed, gritty animated films based on their childhoods. As they scrape by on meager profits and grants, Mel’s erratic behavior and substance abuse puts Sharon on the brink of dissolving their partnership, an idea that is shelved, when Sharon suffers a stroke and Mel is by her side.
LIKE– I’m absolutely sick with envy over Whitaker’s brilliant writing. She’s so talented that I don’t even know where to begin. I guess I should start with Mel and Sharon, two beautifully complex and heartbreaking characters. As individuals, they are tragic, and their relationship is even more tragic.
Sharon, quiet and introverted, spends her life obsessing over men, some of whom are terrible for her, others don’t even realize she exists. Vibrant and brash, Mel is a polarizing personality. Where Sharon sees herself as a mouse, Mel does not hide in shadows. While Sharon tries to mold herself into the person she thinks she needs to be to please a man, Mel is herself, in real life and in her art. The only place Mel is shy, is in her feelings for Sharon. Their relationship is fragile and the secrets that they keep from one another are a threat. Just as Sharon cannot speak of the men that she secretly obsesses over, Mel cannot reveal that she loves her best friend. They can share their dark family secrets with the world through their art, but they cannot speak of their most intimate, personal thoughts with each other.
Whitaker writes beautiful, sensory filled imagery. Mel and Sharon do not live in glamour, their world is dirty and dangerous. It’s covered in a film of dust and cigarette smoke. They pour coffee into cups stained with leftovers. Greasy hair and body odor tinged tee-shirts are their uniforms. Whitaker masterfully sets the stage as The Animators transitions between New York, Florida, and Kentucky. Each setting is a unique landscape, filled with different perils for Mel and Sharon.
I never quite knew where The Animators was heading, or what additional themes would emerge. One of the more thought-provoking themes, is the one of who owns the right to share personal information in art. Should a person be allowed to expose another person’s secrets? What if a person shared a part of their life, that irrevocably changed your own? Is it now yours? Are there themes that should not be exposed in art? What is the line between art and exploitation? I don’t know the answers, and although Whitaker poses these themes, she leaves it subjective. Whitaker took me on a journey that left me shattered and one that I will keep close to my heart.
DISLIKE– Nothing. The Animators is brilliant.
RECOMMEND– YES!!!! The Animators is not only the best novel I’ve read in a long time, but I would go as far to say that it is one of the all-time best books I’ve ever read. I hope that there isn’t a long wait for Whitaker’s next novel.