Valley Girls by Sarah Nicole Lemon
Seventeen-year-old Rilla is a party queen, driven from her home in West Virginia to her park ranger sister’s place in Yosemite National Park. Determined to forge a new identity she can be proud of, Rilla charms her way into a tight-knit group of climbers. Talking to them, Rilla can’t help but be seduced by the unique opportunities she’s been granted. Not wishing to squander them, she sets her sights on climbing El Capitan, one of the most challenging routes in Yosemite, and her summer becomes one harrowing and ecstatic experience after another: first climb, first fall two thousand feet in the air, first love. Rilla starts to get closer and closer to the person she wants to become, but with her family and future at odds, what will she choose?
For a while, I wasn’t sure what to make of this book. Sipping my lemongrass and ginger tea, I scanned the synopsis, wondering if it was the kind of contemporary book I’d fall in love with, or one I’d regret picking up. Contemporary books are a bit of an odd one for me, I can be awfully picky with them.
My general overview of Valley Girls is that it was okay. Readable, definitely. The idea of having a book centred around a hobby such as rock climbing really interested me, and I’m pleased there was lots of terminology in there to pick up along the way. [Note, there’s a helpful glossary at the back of the book if you’re like me and you wish to spend your life with feet planted firmly on the ground.] The whole plot around the climbing was great, and those were the moments that the book really took off for me. Lemon doesn’t hold back on pointing out the dangers of climbing, and the book urges readers to be careful by showing some of the tense situations Rilla and her friends wind up in, but most of all Valley Girls shows the beauty of nature, the possibility of doing something you never dreamed of doing. And it must have worked, because even I, the girl whose worst nightmare is falling off a cliff, briefly contemplated the university climbing wall with an almost longing consideration. That half-formed desire died a moment later, thank god, but it is hard to escape from the sense of adventure this book is fused with.
Rilla’s friends are also awesome, and I liked seeing that awkward friendship blossoming between them. Rilla is clearly a character who hasn’t been afforded many opportunities in life, and she bristles at the thought of being considered ‘white trash’ like she had been back home, so it was great to see her starting to lower her walls and trust people. And I think Lemon portrays these kinds of friendship well. Again, she doesn’t make the whole thing perfect, but just honest and open enough to make us believe in it and liken it to our own experiences.
The rest of the book was a little bit meh for me though. I thought there were some situations, like Rilla arguing with her sister, Thea, or moments with a search and rescue guy called Walker, which just seemed to come totally out of the blue, without any explanation whatsoever. It didn’t make sense. For example [no real spoilers, I promise] there’s a moment when Rilla ends up arguing with Thea in the middle of an evacuation Thea is trying to organize. The row isn’t even about the situation, and it just seems very out of character for Thea to suddenly get into a huge thing with her little sister while she’s trying to do something which could be life-or-death. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t really see the point, and it just left me baffled. The same with Walker. There’s a chemistry there that I liked, but the end of the novel left me feeling let down and conflicted over what I actually wanted for them. Again, no spoilers, but I thought it could have ended differently. It seemed like a very strange and lacklustre end to a good novel.
What I also didn’t really appreciate was how the novel dealt with Rilla and Curtis. There’s a big event that happens before the novel starts which pushes Rilla into going to stay with Thea. Over the course of Valley Girls you learn what it is, and to some extent that big deal is dealt with by Rilla’s behaviour in certain situations, but for the most part I didn’t think it had been addressed enough, considering it was such a big deal she had to move to a different state. To be honest, I don’t know how exactly I’d have preferred for it to be addressed and acknowledged, but I think Lemon downplayed something which is problematic and important by having Rilla almost sweep it under the carpet.
There’s also the minor grammatical and spelling errors peppered throughout the book. I’m not sure if it’s because I was reading a Netgalley ARC or if the finished copy will have them in, but they started to gnaw at me a bit before the end.
Overall, I’d give Valley Girls a 6.5/10. It was a nice, easy read, and I loved the bits where Rilla got to climb with her friends, but I wasn’t sold on the romance or some of the minor plot points, and I finished it feeling a bit underwhelmed.
People in the UK: you can pre-order the novel from Amazon UK here, or Waterstones here, or Book Depository here. I have no idea if this read will be in any subscription boxes, but it sounds like it might be, so keep an eye out. It’ll be released on 8th May.