The Gallery of Unfinished Girls the best YA standalone book I’ve ever read.
It’s a coming-of-age contemporary fantasy novel following Mercedes Moreno, a bisexual Puerto Rican painter who finds the Red Mangrove Estate, a magical building in which every artist is the best version of themselves.
It’s also a book I find really hard to describe. It’s sad, but it’s the happiest sad book you’ll ever read. It’s character-driven and has barely any plot, but so much happens. It’s surreal, it has magic in it, and yet it feels more real than real life.
The first time I read The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, I described it as a love letter to in-between moments. And it is – I think the right word to describe it is “liminal”. It’s about how awkward growing up can be, the weight of your dreams and insecurities, and the things you can’t bring yourself to put on paper or say out loud. It’s about the magic of these awkward moments, because the awkwardness is worth it.
I haven’t found another YA book that describes how it’s like to be a teenage girl as well as this one does.
It’s also a love letter to art. I have read many books from the point of view of main characters who are artists, and yet none ever got into what it’s like to not like your art, to feel discouraged by its imperfections, to not be able to create when something in your life is making you feel stuck – stuck because you have a crush on your best friend and you don’t even know if she likes girls the same way you do, stuck because you don’t know what will happen to your very sick grandmother, stuck because you’re afraid to think about your future.
This book is about those feelings. Mercedes gets introduced to a magical palace where everything she’ll create, every moment, will always be the best version of itself, with no flaws. And I loved how this aspect was explored.
The Gallery of Unfinished Girls talks about perfectionism mostly from the point of view of a painter and also talks about the feelings of a musician (Mercedes’ sister, Angela) but I think everyone who has ever been an artist will be able to relate to those feelings on some level – I do, because I felt and sometimes still feel some of these things as a writer. When you’re stuck, beginnings are the hardest part – the flaws glare at you, and you can’t unsee the fact that everything that looked perfect in your head is imperfect, maybe even ugly, once you try to make it real.
And that’s when you’re tempted to lose yourself in dreams and fantasies, and let your art live only in your head – or, in Mercedes’ case, in a building where everything is perfect but doesn’t exist outside.
But this aspect of The Gallery of Unfinished Girls isn’t only about art. It’s about living as well. Life is messy, life is difficult, and life is scary. It’s much easier to live in your dreams when everything around you feels broken, when you feel like there’s no hope for those dreams to ever become real. This is a book that understand this aspect of growing up. It doesn’t judge or tell you that dreaming is “giving up on your life” or “not really living” (I’d love to never see that kind of message again; there are moments in your life that hurt too much, and sometimes you need to take a break. But you need to come back, eventually.)
It just tells you that maybe the outside is worth it, and maybe you can move on.
This book has a nostalgic feel to it. It’s not happy, but it’s hopeful enough that I can’t describe it as a sad book, either. It’s about moving forward, and if it makes you sad it’s because it makes you feel, and it made me feel a lot of things. It’s the exact opposite of the books I describe as “emotionally flat”, and the perfect example of how to write a book about sad things without exploiting them for shock value.
It made me feel so much because I related to the main character, and she is a very well-written character. Her voice, her thoughts – everything about her narration stood out to me because it felt real, and also because sometimes it was like seeing some of my thoughts on a page.
I don’t think I can do the writing justice. It’s simple and flows and works so well. Everything about this book was so defined and detailed it felt just like real life, even with the magic – maybe even because of the magic: I’ve always thought the magic of everyday life is in the details.
I also thought the atmosphere was perfect: I’ve never been to Florida, but I felt like I was there. To those who say that contemporary books don’t have any worldbuilding, I say that there’s still the difference between those in which the character float in blank space and those in which readers who have never been to the US are able to visualize how things look like.
The side characters are all memorable: Angela was my favorite and I’d read a whole book in her PoV, but I’m also partial to Victoria, the maybe-queer, Italian-American (!!) girl Mercedes has a crush on. Maybe I have low standards, but it’s the first time I’ve seen an Italian character who is not a stereotype in an American book. She is a dancer, her parents don’t own a restaurant, she has no ties with the mafia (…yes this happened), and she is not homophobic. I love her. I also loved Evie (another queer girl! And she’s not there for relationship drama!) and everything that has to do with Lilia Solis, but I can’t explain why without spoilers.
For a book in which there’s very little plot, so many interesting and unexpected things happen.
I also like that this book isn’t a romance. I know we’re all looking for more f/f books – I am too – but I think there’s value in queer stories that aren’t a romance and aren’t in any way tragic. Since this book is about the fact that most things are worth trying even when they don’t work out, I thought this decision made sense.
Also, the ending is kind of open in this aspect. (Headcanon time: I totally believe that Mercedes and Victoria got together a few years later.)
My rating: ★★★★★