A once-ambitious teenage girl searches for her place in Los Angeles after enduring neglect and family tragedy.
Nikki Darling cuts class at the LA County High School for the Arts to drive around suburban Los Angeles in beater cars with her friends, smoking joints and listening to post-punk and riot grrrl bands. She’s a “brooding musical theater gal,” struggling with depression and loneliness behind a screen of tough talk and withdrawn behavior. But when a beautiful and mysterious student named Claire Chang is taken out of school after a supposed suicide attempt, Nikki grows worse, avoiding homework and stifling her aspiration to act. Instead, she pals around with a cast of endearing misfits who specialize in talking smack without saying anything at all. There’s Chelo, a loudmouthed stoner with red hair and thrift-store duds; Mike, a queer kid forced to sleep in his parents’ garage; and Dan, an immature ladies’ man who catches Nikki’s eye. Grown-ups are inscrutable or unhelpful, from Ms. Lavoi, the English teacher who encourages Nikki to read Plath, to Nikki’s mom, who works too late and is away too often to help her youngest daughter heal. In her nostalgic and gritty debut, Darling mashes up autofiction and slam poetry to explore the borderland between teenagers and adults, between family and heritage. Nikki is, after all, “not just...half-Mexican, but the wrong kind of Mexican.” Not everything Darling experiments with here works. At times, the poetic vignettes feel out of place, disconnected from both the narrative and the narrative voice. And when we finally learn the root of Nikki’s depression, it’s hard to understand why a simple plot point would have been kept from us for so long. Even so, Darling’s story is poignant, and she conjures 1990s Los Angeles in all its grim and shimmering glory.
Part punk zine, part battle cry, this debut wields teen angst and riot grrrl rage like a spiked dog collar or a fist.