Dreams of Significant Girls, the first young adult novel by National Book Award nominee Cristina Garcia, takes place in a fusty Swiss boarding school in the early 1970s, the years during which Garcia herself, a Cuban-American émigré raised in New York City, would have been a young teenager.
The domestic lives of the three teenage protagonists have been transformed by international politics: Vivien fled Cuba, then Miami, when her entire family ended up on a hit list due to her Jewish diamond dealer father's perceived leftist sympathies. Ingrid's family ended up in Canada after her father "went from being a Nazi soldier to a wildly successful manufacturer of portable fans." Shirin, an Iranian princess, mocks her roommates' "barbaric" music and North American slang, though her family is much more Westernized than any of the girls understand.
The early '70s also brought a revolution in the lives of girls and women, which lends political significance to their intimate struggles: dating violence, slut-shaming, divorce, unplanned pregnancy. In a world where garden parties and equestrian lessons coexist with torn jeans and Hendrix T-shirts, these girls find that their most ordinary passions – cooking school, photojournalism, math – defy their expected trajectory as girls from good families.
Their rebellion often finds a fitting mark (a "real feminist" raid on a boys school after an incident of sexual humiliation; making art); and other times just disperses in scattershot destruction (beheading marzipan gnomes; kamikaze water ballet). Garcia provides her characters with thoroughly contemporary emotional lives while depicting a society on the cusp of political and social transformation.
Amy Benfer is a book critic writing for The Barnes & Noble Review.