REVIEW: The Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz: the magical realism story of a bisexual artist struggling to deal with her life – 3/5 Stars
In The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, Lauren Karcz has laid out a beautiful narrative revolving around the character Mercedes “Mercy” Moreno, who can barely finish an art piece for a county contest and also happens to be in love with her best friend, Victoria. On top of this, Mercy and her sister, Angela, are both coming to terms with the fact that their mother has left for Puerto Rico in order to take care of their comatose Abuela. We see into the heart and soul of Latina character Mercy and watch as she struggles to handle all the problems life throws at her.
While the prose of this book is stunningly simple to read, the story itself fell flat for me. I found myself wanting more from the characters; I wanted more feelings, more actions — just more. I wanted everything to be turned up a notch or two without flaring out histrionics. The characters weren’t as distinct as I would have liked, and it was often hard to determine between who was speaking. That isn’t to say I didn’t love the characters — I did. I loved the way Mercy blindly cares about her sister yet finds herself also wanting to sabotage her success. Each and every one of them are so heart-wrenchingly relatable, as is the story. But it’s nothing new, and it’s nothing I haven’t read before.
Mercy is a bisexual (the most common of the LGBTQ+ characters in novels these days — can I get some lesbians, please?) and she’s utterly in love with her best friend. Like … longing-stares-and-pathetic-gag-me-thoughts in love. At one point she even mentions wanting to run down the halls screaming her love for Victoria. But, of course, Mercy doesn’t want her best friend to know about this love, because … well … why would she? In these books, that’s always the worst case scenario — another real-world parallel that’s also not anything new to read. The lovestruck character never wants the love interest to actually find out that they’re the love interest. While this definitely mirrors the real life fear of telling someone your feelings, it doesn’t lead well to an exciting narrative. I wanted to grab Mercy by the shoulder and shake her. I wanted to yell at her that she was being obvious anyway and that Victoria already knew.
Victoria is also supposed to be this supporting best friend type, but I kind of hated her. She wasn’t there for Mercy in a way that I thought a supporting friend would be. She was always talking about her own dreams and goals and wasn’t a good listener. We all have a character that we love to hate, but I just hated to hate her. Mercy, however, I was in love with. I loved the way she struggled with her art, the way she tore apart things that were once special to her, because that is true to life and that is honest to a person’s inexplicable feelings and that is exciting. It’s something all artists have to go through and I loved reading that on the page.
Another character, Lilia, was one I was intrigued by. At first she enters under a veil of mystery, only around for certain moments and there to help the characters at random. I fell in love with her instantly. Maybe it was that veil of mystery that drew me to her; while in other instances the characters were marked immediately — this is my personality exactly — it took a little while to figure out Lilia as a character; and I enjoyed that.
While some of the characters felt similar and two dimensional, I did love the ones that stood out. If all of the characters had been like this, the book would have received a higher rating from me. That, coupled with the slow-dragging narrative, didn’t get me invested right away and I actually had a hard time making it to the end of the book. I also enjoyed the lack of romance that this book employed. It was more based on Mercedes coming to terms with her life and her art. It was magical realism and dealing with all the inspiration-less moments in our lives. The parts where Mercedes was painting were the most beautifully written parts of this story and if I could read only those chapters strewn together without all the bits and pieces in between, I would.
“The Gallery of Unfinished Girls”, being mostly plotless and instead driven by characters, left me feeling a little empty when I finally reached the end. I think that this book is (and will be) loved by the kind of people that enjoy more character-forward stories. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.