14-year-old Chloe reveres her older half-sister, Ruby. But then so does everyone else. Nearly mythical, Ruby has a mysterious power in their town, and everybody listens to her. Since their mother is a worthless drunk and their fathers are out of the picture, Ruby has raised Chloe and watches out for her.
"Readers are likely to have strong opinions about IMAGINARY GIRLS, with its gorgeous prose and unpredictable plotline."
As the story opens, Chloe and Ruby are at a party at the huge reservoir that covered nine towns, including one named Olive in 1914, when the valley was flooded to form a drinking water reservoir for New York City. As always, the boys surround Ruby, who carelessly dangles one toe in the water and makes a proclamation: "Chloe could swim this whole thing, there and back." Ruby is claiming that her little sister can swim from their shore to the one they can barely see in the distance. She suggests Chloe will pick up a souvenir from the submerged town of Olive and bring it back. Of course, it's practically impossible, which is why Ruby is so sure that Chloe can do it --- and why Chloe plays along instead of continuing to try hard not to notice her crush, Owen, up on the highest rock.
As Chloe swims out into the reservoir, the dark night around her, she can hear the others at first. Then she can't. She feels the water turn cold at the spot that Ruby claims to be the very heart, the center, of Olive. There, the water becomes heavy, dragging on her legs. As she swims over Olive, she thinks of the stories Ruby tells about that underwater town. Ruby claims the people of Olive refused to leave it when the dam was filled. The townspeople still live down there and can barely see boat bottoms and swimmers passing over their watery sky.
Suddenly, Chloe tires. She can hear Ruby laughing in the far distance. Why doesn't Ruby call for her to return? Chloe decides to turn back. But she's hanging on to a floating rowboat she's come across when she notices something strange and terrible --- a cold hand! At that moment, Ruby begins to call Chloe's name, but Chloe can do nothing but hang there. When the others arrive with flashlights, Chloe sees that the dead body in the boat belongs to a girl she knows: London Hayes, who's the same age as her.
Chloe's father in Pennsylvania takes his daughter in. Chloe no longer lives with Ruby, but yearns for her older sister. She thinks constantly about that night at the reservoir, how she almost was a legend, but instead found a corpse. She obsesses about London Hayes, too, remembering how London had chopped her hair off raggedly and her hard-partying reputation. Chloe's mother sends her a box full of junk, but included in the feathers and beads and tea is London's obituary, clipped from a local newspaper.
Two years pass, and Ruby talks Chloe into coming home. As she arrives in town after a long bus ride, she is to meet Ruby at a party at the quarry. And there, she sees something that is beyond the realm of possibility: London Hayes, who once was indubitably dead, is manning the keg, handing a plastic glass of Ruby. Of course, Chloe will be compelled (as will readers) to unravel this unfathomable mystery.
Readers are likely to have strong opinions about IMAGINARY GIRLS, with its gorgeous prose and unpredictable plotline. Some might describe the pace as extremely slow and find certain aspects of the story to be vague or confusing. Others are bound to be enraptured by the almost dreamlike quality of the tale and the urgent need to see how on earth Chloe's story wraps up. Count me in the enthralled camp; I could barely put the book down. This is fine summer reading that will keep you up nights --- one way or the other.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on June 14, 2011