Going to “Girl Church.” 5 Books that Explore Female Friendship and Adolescence


I have always been mesmerized by stories told in the collective. My first experience with a collective narrator was The Virgin Suicides, which I read as a young teenager—all that angst, all those tender bodies!

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But in spite of my love for Eugenides’s debut novel, that collective is a voyeuristic one that does not include the voices of the girls at the heart of the novel, which is to say, the Lisbons do not get to narrate themselves. They can only ever be observed through the scrim of boy-desire. And perhaps that’s where I first got the idea to write a book that depends on the voices of adolescent girls.

There’s just something so delicious about dissolving into that we. Something so alternately powerful (one becomes a many: more eyes, more mouths, more wants, more more) and vulnerable (one cedes control, one’s eyes and mouth are entrusted to the many). This narrative form is especially useful for rendering the dismissed desires of disempowered people loud and gushing.

And though I can embrace quiet, subtle novels from time to time, I wanted to invite the girls who tell the story of my debut novel, The Curators, to gush, to devour, to lurch into ugly ecstasy, and to find purpose in their collectivity.

But more important than the stylistic intrigue of the moments where their voices overlap, the girls and women in so many of my favorite books conjure an aw(e)ful interdependence that renders them vital, in the most literal sense, to one another. They seek life within each other. They are determined by, bound and forged, and sometimes consumed by these relationships.

I have described the books on this list as novels that go to “girl church” because the majority of them traffic in the sacred rites of girl-world—narratives that rest on the precarious knife-edge of the romantic and the sacred: the obsessive intimacy of ripening bodies, of shared fear, and unbounded possibility.

But there are books on this list that center on women, too, on bodies that share the intimacy of aging, of heat and change, of infirmity. What is common to all of them is a propulsive and generous knowing and loving so strong and terrible that it transcends the individual and absorbs the girls and women in its orbit into shared rapture.

Any reader who has been to girl church, who has lived within its fleshy temple, knows the twinning voracity and veracity that thrives between its congregants. And any reader who hasn’t can visit that holy, needful space here, in the books of this list.

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Mónica Ojeda, Jawbone (trans. Sarah Booker)

This National Book Award finalist centers a cabal of six private school girls in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Early in the book, the girls find an abandoned building which they convert into a private hangout-cum-temple, claiming the space by painting its walls, conducting painful dares within its crumbling rooms, and performing invented rituals that culminate with the telling of scary stories.

All of this is orchestrated by the group’s leaders, Fernanda and Annelise, girls so close they’re practically sisters, practically lovers, they practically share a body—until they don’t.

Studded with allusions that range from the moody, classic literature of the high school classroom (think Poe and Madame Bovary, and Moby Dick) to horror films and TV (Rosemary’s Baby, The Vampire Diaries) to internet horror (Slender Man and a slurry of other Creepypasts), these texts are more than allusions. They’re the fearful, fictive, desire-filled source material for the girl-church mythology the group plays at so religiously that it becomes real.

Dare Me - Abbott, Megan

Megan Abbott, Dare Me

In this mystery novel, a team of aimless cheerleaders in small-town America finds focus and drive under the leadership of young new coach, Colette French. Her arrival, however, disrupts the existing power structures within the team, which are as elaborate and precarious as the human pyramids the squad drills at practice.

If you’re thinking to yourself cheerleaders? I’m simply too spooky for cheerleaders, then reader, I once thought as you do now, but trust me, you’re dead wrong. Abbott writes a world where twinning synchronicity, body purging, blood-pacting teenhood is not so much a spectacle but an underpinning of life.

Like Jawbone, this is a novel obsessed with the changing bodies of its central characters, and the limits of those bodies. The book probes the uncomfortably porous boundaries of desire between childhood and adulthood; plus, there’s a juicy murder!

Brutes - Tate, Dizz

Dizz Tate, Brutes

The Florida landscape of Dizz Tate’s Brutes is fetid and sweet, like “half a cherry pie…shimmering with roaches.” Tate’s repeated use of unsettling images pairings—confection and rot, luxury and collapse—is indicative of the culture into which Brutes’s narrators were born and raised.

Like my own novel, Brutes is narrated primarily by a gang of thirteen-year-old girls, and also like my novel, this gang fixates with dangerous intensity on an absent other, an unknowable girl. While in my book, that other is made unknowable by death, Brutes’s Sammy Liu, fourteen-year-old daughter of a famous televangelist, is missing in perpetuity, a mystery that gives unsatisfiable purpose to its collective narrator. Each of their binocular-spied revelations uncovers a darker, more uncomfortable truth about how girls are perceived and consumed, a truth about predation, abuse, and desire.

Brutes is a girl-church novel that inherits a desecrated sanctuary.

Bunny - Awad, Mona

Mona Awad, Bunny

Bunny is surely the funniest book on this list, though it’s a dark, blood-soaked humor. Awad takes shots at the Ivy League, the MFA workshop, the objectification of women in the male-dominated canon, the state of contemporary literature, and all the pretention that goes along with it. Yet Bunny levels these incisive critiques in the most deranged possible way: through ritual slaughter and cupcakes.

Bunny’s heroine (if there is one) is outsider Samantha Heather Mackey. Initially ostracized by her cohort, a clique of hyper-feminized, intentionally precious MFA prose writers who all call one another “Bunny,” Samantha is eventually invited into their inner circle, where she participates in an experimental “workshop” that entails conjuring (and brutally murdering) living man-animal hybrids called “drafts” with the supposed purpose of claiming sexual agency on and off the page.

Sure, the Bunnies are saccharine, insincere, cruel, and murderous, and Samantha has to face them off in the end, but their tenderness, their little girlness with one another, their commitment to ritual, and their shared and terrible belief put them squarely in the girl-church genre.

Matrix - Groff, Lauren

Lauren Groff, Matrix

This novel, set in the twelfth century, follows historical poet and proto-feminist, Marie de France through an entire lifetime. In Groff’s imagining, Marie is sent away from French court by the (unrequited) love of her young life, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to become the prioress—against her will and at the age of seventeen—of an English abbey on the brink of starvation and collapse.

Initially repulsed by the austerity of the abbey and by what she perceives as the ignorance of its inhabitants, over time Marie uses her cunning and skill to turn the abbey from a place of poverty and suffering to one of abundance and community. She finds deep connection, intellectual and physical, with the women whose lives are, like hers, devoted to God and to the health of the abbey.

Unlike many of the books on this list, Matrix centers the communion of aging bodies. In one radiant passage, Groff writes of “a great sympathetic shining” which originates from Marie’s body with the sudden fever of a hot flash and “pours outward” as it “descends upon each of the other nuns one by one in a luminous rush.” It is this kind of body-sharing baptism that earns Matrix its place in girl-church.

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The Curators - Nye, Maggie

The Curators by Maggie Nye is available via Northwestern University Press.



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