Mercedes Moreno is a mess. In The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, the debut novel by author Lauren Karcz (my sis-in-law!), we follow a young woman on her final approach to adulthood as she explores what it means to be a friend, sister, and daughter, while struggling to stay true to herself (whatever that means).
Mercedes is living in the shadow of her own success. She’s won accolades for a piece of mixed-media artwork she created the previous year but is completely unable to reignite the spark that led her to paint it. The end of her high school career is looming and despite everyone expecting her to go to an art college, she feels like a fraud of an artist. Add to that the stress of her mother having left for Puerto Rico to tend to their dying abuela, leaving her and her sister alone. Plus, she’s in love with her best friend, a dedicated ballerina with concrete plans to attend Julliard. It’s the kind of messy mental landscape you would expect from a teenager and Karcz captures it with aplomb, admittedly drawing on her own experiences and musings from when she was a frustrated teen artist, giving Mercedes’ pain true impact.
In fact, it’s almost too perfect. There were periods where I had to put the book down and just walk away while reading, not because I wasn’t engaged; but because I was so frustrated by Mercedes. The character brought out all my worse “boring adult” impulses. I was crafting lectures for her to roll her eyes at. I was tutting at her decisions as they made me cringe. I was so ready to “young lady” Mercedes into a proper grounding, I could taste it.
And just as Mercedes’ mental clamor ratchets up to a boiling point, a stranger enters the room in the form of Lilia. She’s able to draw out heretofore undiscovered musical talent in Mercedes’ sister, Angela, and becomes something of a muse for Mercedes (though not without our protagonist going through a fair amount of jealousy and self doubt first). It’s Lilia who challenges Mercedes on what she’s done and what she could be doing. It’s Lilia who brings her to the Red Mangrove Estate, an abandoned condo on the beach-side of Longboat Key where she can create whatever she wants with the only stipulation being that “no one ever has to know what you create here.” It’s a puzzling directive that, for Mercedes, has a dramatic effect. The pressure to produce something worthwhile, the crushing feeling that she’s competing with a Platonic version of herself as an artist, it’s all lifted at the Estate.
It’s when Mercedes finally reaches the Estate that the novel finds its footing and really takes off. It’s as if, as Mercedes is inspired and gains confidence, the plot is allowed to move forward as well. Mercedes is able to do things there that she can’t do anywhere else (or at least feels that she can’t). Even when she’s away from the Estate, ideas for the pieces she’s left unfinished on the walls throb in her system, an itch that has only one way to be scratched. But then secrets about the Estate (and Lilia) start to push to the surface, catching Mercedes in a dreamlike alternate reality that is enviable in that it gives her as much time and as little pressure as she needs to find her voice. It’s the dream of every artist.
It’s only when Mercedes’ sister Angela is caught in the thrall of the Red Mangrove Estate that she sees her new “studio” might not be the selfless magical realm that she imagined. The Estate has needs and they may or may not be tied to Lilia. Karcz drops some breadcrumbs along the way, but there’s a satisfying twist awaiting those who follow Mercedes on her journey as she tries to find herself and figure out her place in the world, while keeping those she loves safe.
The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is a jangly, unsettling, nerve-wracking ride because, honestly, that’s what adolescence is – that last big push of labor as you go from child to adult. At times it’s difficult to continue; but you know that stopping would be worse than moving forward. Mercedes’ emotions are raw and sit right on the surface of everything. There’s no subterfuge (she’s terrible at it), except the most obvious of teenage lies. It’s refreshing and terrifying at the same time.
Karcz has crafted a debut that entertains as well as it engages. So much of what she puts on the page feels intensely personal (because a lot of it draws on her own experiences). At the same time there’s a relatableness to Mercedes and her journey because we’ve all experienced it in some way. If you’ve ever struggled to find your voice or been lost in your own head trying to figure out what was next, you’ll find a compatriot in Mercedes Moreno.
You can find The Gallery of Unfinished Girls on Amazon.
Thanks to Lauren Karcz and Harper Teen for providing a proof copy for review (though I went an bought my own copy as soon as it came out anyway, because that’s how you make sure good artists keep making good art). Opinions are my own.