Reading Sarah Nicole Lemon’s debut book, Done Dirt Cheap, was an experience. It’s one of those books that leaves you slightly dizzy and wondering what had just happened. But in the best possible way. So I was excited to read her second, Valley Girls, and I am happy to report that for me it did not disappoint.
There are two things that I loved the most about this book. First, it is deeply, unabashedly nerdy about climbing. If you’ve read Code Name Verity, it’s like Maddie is about planes, but the entire book. Rilla isn’t instantly amazing at it, but she keeps coming back and Lemon gives a sense of why. It’s not just the technical details, although they are compelling and gave me a false sense of vicarious accomplishment, like I too could climb in Yosemite. (Hahahaha.) But the real heart of climbing in this book is that it’s the mechanism through which we see Rilla’s journey. It’s the way that she comes to understand herself and the people around her more clearly.
The second thing that I loved is that this is a story very tightly focused on a young woman’s interiority. Rilla is deeply flawed and she’s not excused for that, for the way she lashes out and hurts others. But she’s also not condemned for it; this is a book about second chances, and it’s a reminder that we don’t have to stay in the box other people create for us. Throughout the book, we see flashes of other characters’ perspectives in ways that remind us of their own points of view, and yet Rilla’s transformation is always the heart of the story.
And there are other aspects that tie right into things I love, like the beautiful descriptions of the Yosemite landscape and the feelings of vastness and awe that it gives Rilla. Or the thorny, complex relationship between Rilla and her sister Thea (if I have a small complaint about the book, it’s that this thread gets kind of dropped towards the end, and I wish there was another scene between the sisters). Or the stubborn and also complicated relationship between the group of girls who climb in Yosemite, which Rilla finds herself a part of.
Most of all, it’s about the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and who other people are, and the way those stories can get in the way of growth. I loved how Rilla’s desire to grow was sometimes at odds with the familiarity of stereotypes and expectations. It is often easier to live down to our worst selves, and the process here is not a simple or immediate one. I took a photo of one quote that particularly resonated with me:
“It was true. That was what she’d been expecting–to change the minute she determined she should. Terrified when she was not immediately the things she envisioned. Panicked she never would be.”
It’s part of Rilla’s journey to realize that she doesn’t have to be instantly perfect at climbing, or at friendships, or at being true to her own self. We see her mess up again and again through the story, but we also see her learn her own strengths, internal and external. Ultimately, this felt like a very kind book to me, one that wants girls like Rilla–girls who feel like outsiders, who feel unlovable and unloving–to see that this is not the only truth about them. To realize that they can mess up and not always live up to their ideals or desires, and yet still be worth something.
For me, the ending felt a tad abrupt, and as I said a strand or two was dropped. In that sense it’s perhaps not a technically perfect book, but the emotional journey and Rilla’s characterization rang true and so I don’t really care. It’s not inspirational in the sense of the characters being perfect or instantly good. They’re flawed and passionate and often wrong. But the story here is all the more powerful for that and I’m glad I read it.
Previously on By Singing Light:
Landscape and Character (2016)
Worldbuilding 202 (2015)
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (2014) [speaking of thorny, complex sisters, and stories we tell about ourselves]