The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

I was thrilled to spot Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut, The Animators. By all indications, it was exactly my kind of book – a contemporary story about two women, Sharon and Mel, who meet in a university art class. Both outsiders, the women become friends, bonding over their mutual love of underground cartoons. Ten years later, they are still working together, as animators. Their first feature film, based on Mel’s dysfunctional childhood, is a hit but in the middle of celebrating their success, tragedy strikes, testing their working relationship and friendship.

“I scowl at Mel, irritated. Maybe I should just be honest and tell everyone that me cleaning up from the night before has become our truest form of collaboration.”

There were a number of things I really liked in this book and a few that I intensely disliked. Firstly, the characters were well-developed – their personality traits and small clues about their past give the reader enough information to draw some (accurate) conclusions. Mel is raucous, talented, unapologetic and an addict. Sharon is the work-horse – talented yet unsure, with a list of insecurities that play out in her relationships with men. Although Whitaker saves most of Sharon and Mel’s back-story for later in the novel, you don’t doubt their motivations.

There are flashes of terrific writing – Sharon’s family are brilliantly rendered, her mother in particular – but too often those flashes were lost in dialogue that felt forced; emotions that were too jagged; and descriptions of animation that only hard-core fans would be interested in. Additionally, while the story didn’t feel overly or unnecessarily time-stamped, small inaccuracies jarred –

“Mel twisted over me and reached for her backpack. Pulled out a handful of VHS tapes. Handed one to me. “Put it in.” I slid it into my roommate’s VCR.”

Now VCRs are true Gen X territory (and therefore my territory) and Mel would not have said ‘VCR’ and ‘VHS’. Instead, she would have said ‘video’ and ‘tape’. Yes, I’m nit-picking but these details jolt you out of a reading experience and I’m sure Whitaker would have preferred I stay right there, in Mel’s dorm room, smoking cigarettes, eating Cheetos and watching cartoons.

Frustratingly, the blurb suggested campus-lit with an art edge. Instead, we get a snapshot of how Sharon and Mel met at college before the story fast-forwards a decade, only to rewind to some hellish childhood story-lines (fairly well-worn territory that Whitaker/Mel re-brands as ‘white-trash noir’ and ‘redneck pathos’). Throw in a few plot twists and the whole thing added up to what I liken to the cover of a trashy mag – glossy, eye-catching but ultimately no substance behind the sensational headlines.

2.5/5 Perhaps a little tight because there’s lots to recommend Whitaker – I won’t discount reading whatever she writes next.

I received my copy of The Animators from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. The Animators will be published in January 2017.

“Mel reappears downstairs with a blender full of her special Robitussin cocktail, an unspeakable combination of gin, cough syrup, fruit brandy, gummy bears, God knows what else.”

Hold the cough syrup thanks, instead try a Boston Cocktail (and garnish with a gummy bear).

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11 responses

  1. This was already on my radar – I was hoping for something like the friendship in Rachel B. Glasser’s Paulina and Fran but it doesn’t sound nearly so good. I know what you mean about anachronisms but being older than you and therefore encountering more of them I’ve learned to live with them and not grind my teeth too much!

  2. What gets me is sentences like “I scowl at Mel, irritated.” Why is the word “irritated” even there? Why would you scowl at someone if you weren’t, more or less, irritated with them? It’s like writing “I burst into tears, upset.” And so many authors do it! It’s like they think we’re not actually humans and need emotional signposts. AAGGHH.

    • There was lots of that overkill and once you begin noticing it, it’s hard to ignore. Another thing she did was use the word “like” in dialogue… Well, like, it’s not really Gen X who, like, use the word like all the time… It’s more like Gen Z, like.

      • SO hard to ignore! Also, authors who use “like” in dialogue but sequester it between two commas confuse me. No one who uses the word “like” in that way, in their speech, observes a pause. People just like talk like that, you know? Like, if it starts a sentence you can put a comma after it, cause that like actually does mark a break, but like most people just use it the way they’d use like “the” or “and”, you know?

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