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Not Just for Kids: 'Dreams of Significant Girls'

What happens when three girls from widely different backgrounds become roommates at a Swiss boarding school? Family and politics happen in Cristina García's latest young adult novel.

August 21, 2011|By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times

Dreams of Significant Girls

A Novel

Cristina García

Simon & Schuster: 238 pp., $16.99, ages 14 and up

Friendships are often forged in uncomfortable environs, when individuals who wouldn't ordinarily meet are forced to interact. Such is the case in "Dreams of Significant Girls," a young-adult novel that unfolds in a Swiss boarding school and makes roommates of three girls from radically different backgrounds.

Without the advantage of money, it's unlikely that Shirin (the daughter of an Iranian prince) would have met Ingrid (a Canadian juvenile delinquent) or Vivien (a Cuban American whose parents' marriage was on the rocks). Yet fate threw the young teens together in the same cramped room to endure a friendship ritual that, as one character noted, inevitably involved discussions about their fathers' work, the locations of their familyies' second and third homes and what cars they'd be getting as birthday presents once they'd reached legal driving age in their home countries.

In less skilled hands, "Dreams of Significant Girls" could have been a one-dimensional coming-of-age story that revolved around the single axis of inevitable cultural tensions. But in this young-adult debut from Cristina García, author of the National Book Award finalist "Dreaming in Cuban," pedigreed personal wealth is merely the steppingstone into larger, more complicated issues of family dynamics and global politics, which in Garcia's work are often intertwined.

"Dreams of Significant Girls" takes place in the early 1970s. Other than occasional references to anachronisms such as electric-green eye shadow, however, the decades-old setting isn't apparent. The characters use modern language and their story as a whole is timeless. Opening the book in 1971 allows García to revisit her own teen years and to leverage the political events she experienced firsthand, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

Vivien and her parents are Cuban exiles who fled to in New York. Ingrid's father was a German soldier who also fled to Canada after World War II and is haunted by his actions. Shirin, from oil-producing Iran, suspects that she's perceived as little more than a "wealthy petro-savage," she writes early in this book, which is told from alternating first-person points of view over the course of three summers.

The novel is divided into three parts ; each is anchored with letters the girls send one another when school's out and they've returned home to be with their families. Similar to that in "Dreaming in Cuban," García's writing is a pastiche of first-person confessionals, dreams and letters. Depending on which character is narrating, she strobes between the humorous and the soulful.

Like an international "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," "Dreams of Significant Girls" works because the characters are all so different. Ingrid is a hard-partying Hendrix fan whose underage drinking, smoking of unfiltered cigarettes and possession of a fake ID had gotten her kicked out of more than a few private schools. Shirin is a mild-mannered math geek whose idea of a good time is reading textbooks. Vivien is a cherubic, warm-hearted romantic with a sweet tooth.

What binds the three, beyond the four walls of their school, are the rites of passage common to all teenage girls, most notably their experiences with boys and their interactions with family, who may be far away but whose presence is definitely felt. Only Ingrid "saw boys for who they really were: derelict sacks of self-centered, raging hormones," she writes when Vivien and Shirin each find boyfriends.

As much as they resist one anothers' friendship at first, ultimately, they decide to rely upon one another to share secrets and work through situational complications — or, as Ingrid says, "the poetics of an inexplicable universe."

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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