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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Girl Meets Boy

Ali Smith

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To purchase Girl Meets Boy

Title: Girl Meets Boy
Author: Ali Smith
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 161 pages
Availability: Girl Meets Boy - US
Girl Meets Boy - UK
Girl Meets Boy - Canada
Girl Meets Boy - India
Girl Meets Boy - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : bright and enjoyable, though the relentless sexism is pretty heavy-handed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 8/12/2007 Ursula K Le Guin
The Independent . 23/11/2007 Stevie Davies
Independent on Sunday . 28/10/2007 Catherine Taylor
The LA Times . 20/1/2008 Jenifer Berman
New Stateman . 7/12/2007 Tadzio Koelb
The Observer A+ 28/10/2007 Kirsty Gunn
San Francisco Chronicle . 6/1/2008 Meghan Ward
Scotland on Sunday A 11/11/2007 Stuart Kelly
The Scotsman . 27/10/2007 Allan Massie
The Spectator . 3/11/2007 Molly Guinness
Sunday Times . 11/11/2007 Hugo Barnacle
The Telegraph . 20/10/2007 Elena Seymenliyska
TLS A 9/11/2007 Alex Clark

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but many quite taken by it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Smith cheats a bit, I think, in the nicest possible way: the rearrangement of gender is effected without any divine intervention at all. It surprised me to find in a contemporary novel a character who is a creative consultant in a vast and evil international corporation and who seems to have enough sophistication to be handling her job just fine, but is so utterly taken aback by finding that her sister has lesbian tendencies that she can think about it only in shuddering euphemisms and parentheses. To be sure, the sisters live in Inverness. Perhaps Inverness, in this respect, is like parts of the American middle west, only more so -- I don't know, though I suspect Smith's location of the myth is indeed place-specific. Anyhow, in her version, the only person who needs to be transformed is the corporate sister. Once she's been won over, we are ready for the warm and wishful and sweetly celebratory finale." - Ursula K Le Guin, The Guardian

  • "Jaunty lightness, carefree, labile inventiveness and powerful tenderness work their magic on the reader." - Stevie Davies, The Independent

  • "Girl Meets Boy is a delicate tale with a solid message of conscientious objection at its heart. It reaches a joyful conclusion in which the formalised pairing off of couples is more reminiscent of Shakespearean comedy than the gruesome imagery of Ovid. Keith enquires of his team: "How, precisely, do we bottle imagination? " Effervescent retellings such as this perhaps provide the answer." - Catherine Taylor, Independent on Sunday

  • "And yet, in a world where advertising is unavoidable, Smith offers a well-timed reminder that consumer action -- yes, a box of cereal can save the puffins ! -- is not the equivalent of social action. Wicked, political and provocative, Girl Meets Boy sets the record straight." - Jenifer Berman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Midge’s conversion to tolerance is unconvincing and undermines the whole work. The hermetic style and the enigma of the grandparents’ cross-genderism raise expectations of mystery and psychological subtlety. When these go unmet, what had started with a bang ends with a whimper." - Tadzio Koelb, New Stateman

  • "Girl Meets Boy is rewriting -- and then some. A glorious, wide-awake dream of a book that has, right at its beating heart, one of Ovid's Metamorphoses. (…) Nobody else in the series has managed to carry through the sense and timbre of the original work while at the same time energising and making entirely necessary the original story. (…) Smith is a gravely moral writer -- and that is partly why her contribution to the world of myth is so powerful." - Kirsty Gunn, The Observer

  • "A short, fun read, Girl Meets Boy is full of pop culture references such as Facebook, MySpace and Google, constant reminders that our identity, politics and imagination are bound by our social mores, not by our Olympian gods." - Meghan Ward, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Girl Meets Boy is a joyful, experimental work. Smith deftly employs all kind of linguistic tricks to paint her characters. Imogen thinks almost entirely inside brackets when she is shocked by her sister's lesbianism, as she juggles causes, signs, anxieties and conflicting emotions (.....) Smith's work is fundamentally a parable about acceptance, and it pits the fluid, shape-changing, exuberance of sexuality with the monolithic Pure. If there is a message here, it is an instinctive mistrust of the unchanging." - Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

  • "The novella is authentically Ovidian in its lightness, wit, grace, and exuberance. Look at it coldly and the magic may be dispelled; but this is true of Ovid also and of Shakespearean comedy, which so often echoes the Roman poet. But, while reading it, you may -- should -- believe." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman

  • "It is a clever use of the myth, and Ali Smith has delivered another exuberant cascade of words; the romance is described in a lyrical flood and Imogen’s part is dealt with mainly in accomplished streams of consciousness. The heterosexual romance that appears as a subplot is delineated with psychological acumen; the interest of the homosexual one is rather a type of sub-poetic torrent describing mutual bliss -- two pages are taken up by synonyms for marriage. It is a creditable addition to our lesbian corpus, but perhaps suffers from having too many messages." - Molly Guinness, The Spectator

  • "The love idyll is more than a little fey and precious, with flights of icky purple prose and puns (…) But elsewhere the book has a saving lightness and humour." - Hugo Barnacle, Sunday Times

  • "Smith takes this classic myth about the transformative power of love and turns it into a modern-day story of corporate, personal and sexual rebellion." - Elena Seymenliyska, The Telegraph

  • "Smith's choice is both acute and enormously liberating; the skeleton of the story is itself intriguing, but the contemporary flesh that Smith chooses to give it is clever, complex and thrilling. (…) Smith has made central to her writing the determination to honour both love and stories in all their strange and messy and suggestive incarnations, and her version of Ovid is at once tender and affectionate -- she exhibits a writer's sympathy, for example, for Ovid's need to find a cheerful story to insert in among all the punishing violence of Metamorphoses -- at the same time as it is committed to stretching and reshaping the original, to exposing its weak links and to setting it off in new directions. (…) At times more fairy tale than myth, and blurring the boundaries between the two, Girl Meets Boy delights because it refuses to stop at a single metamorphosis; despite its compactness, its stories multiply and rebound exuberantly, its echoes calling to one another across the pages." - Alex Clark, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Girl Meets Boy Ali Smith offers her variation of the Iphis-myth from Ovid's Metamorphoses. In that story a husband tells his pregnant wife that if their child turns out to be a daughter they won't be able to afford to keep it and it will have to be put to death. The wife prays to Isis, who tells her to raise the child as a boy even if -- as turns out to be the case -- it's a girl. The child is named Iphis, and all goes well until s/he is set to marry the girl she loves, Ianthe. That's where the gods and a little bit of metamorphosis come in, to set things right.
       Ali Smith's variation does without the physical transformation (or the threat of infanticide), and puts a lot of different spins on the story. One of the central characters is Anthea, who falls in love with a boy who turns out to be a girl, Robin Goodman (and, yes, in what is the major flaw of the book, Smith can't help hammering home even here the idea that you are only a 'good man' if you're a woman -- or at least very feminine ...). Anthea's sister, Imogen (called Midge), helped her get a job where she works, at Pure, where they're both supposed to be 'Creatives' -- currently flogging Scottish bottled water, for which they have to come up with a catchy brand-name. "How, precisely, do we bottle the imagination ?" the boss of bosses asks. That's the task set for them -- and, no surprise, Anthea bails out right then and there. No bottling up imagination for her !
       Anthea is attracted to the boy (who turns out to be a girl) defacing the large Pure sign outside, Robin, who signs her name "Iphisol" (which, in fact turns out to be 'Iphis 07'). Anthea is immediately won over, and soon enough and more or less they live happily ever after, lovers spray-painting slogans about how unfairly women are treated to great acclaim.
       Midge's road to salvation is a bit rockier. She's more willing to play along with the corporate games, even enthusiastic about participating in (and innovating) the lying that is fundamental to all marketing . She also takes it pretty hard when it turns out her sister is apparently 'a gay'. But she, too, sees the light and does what needs be done, and from 'I' to 'You' to 'Us' to 'Them' -- so the different sections of the novel -- by the end they're 'All Together Now'.
       Girl Meets Boy often sparkles. Smith presents the voices -- Anthea and Midge alternate in first person narratives -- pitch-perfectly, down to Midge's almost timidly parenthetical thoughts. There's also a lot of very clever stuff here, too, including the hilarious marketing-speak at Pure (disturbing, also, in that it rings so true) and Iphisol's sloganeering. Smith does a pretty nice love story, too, and her playing with language is thoroughly enjoyable throughout.
       But Girl Meets Boy is also a book with a message, summed up in the original Iphis-myth, the privileging of boys over girls, in every regard. Even infanticide (and selective abortions) are part of the problem, in parts of the world, as 'the message girls' remind everyone, but the problem extends to all facets of life: women are under-represented in political life, they're underpaid (relatively to men), in sum, they're treated like lesser beings, and as Smith has her characters insist: this must change.
       So far, so good. Smith has a point, and she makes it fairly well. Unfortunately she goes to extremes in making the point -- to such extremes that it can be off-putting. Girl Meets Boy is set in a world where the feminine ideal is indeed ideal. The women are almost saintly. The men, on the other hand ... well, it's almost enough to make most male readers want to turn in their penises and embrace feminist-lesbianism.
       "Where have you been, you useless slag ?" is the friendly greeting Midge gets from her mates Dominic and Norman when she goes to meet them in a pub. God knows why she wants to hang out with them, but she does:

     Don't call me that, I say.
     Can't take a joke ? he says. Loosen up. Ha ha !
     He goes to the bar and brings me a glass of white.
     Norm, I said a Diet Coke, I say.
     But I've bought it now, Norman says.
     So I see, I say.
     Do you want me to take it back and change it ? Norman says.
     No, it's okay, I'll drink it since it's here now, I say.
       Which sums up male-female relationships as Smith seems them: the rude, thoughtless men running roughshod over the women, who ultimately give in after, at best, a lame attempt at protest. That, according to Smith, is how the world works nowadays.
       Midge is successful at Pure, and gets a fabulous promotion, but when head man Keith shows her her new office and tells her her new duties -- which would demand compromising any principles she has left -- she finally has had enough. But that scene isn't just about personal integrity. Keith is the man, and he lets her know it:
     (Keith's midriff is close to my eyes. I can see that his trousers are repressing an erection. More, I can see that he wants me to see it. He is actually showing me his hidden hard-on.)
       Men, eh ?!?
       There are some sympathetic male figures, but they're definitely the exception. And the emphasis is definitely not on their maleness, the sympathetic men all having embraced their feminine sides. So, for example, the book opens with the girls' grandfather saying: "Let me tell you about when I was a girl". And when Imogen finally figures out who the right man for her is, her declaration of love isn't exactly a paean to machismo:
you seem quite female to me, I don't mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a good way, you have a lot of feminine principle, I know that, I know it instinctually, and it's unusual in a man, and I really like it. I love it, actually.
       'Feminine principle' ? Good god, isn't this kind of claptrap as bad as worrying about what the 'weaker sex' can handle ? Of course women still get a raw deal -- individually and collectively -- far too often, and of course this should be changed, but demonizing men in this way (and Smith does exactly that) seems simply silly. Perhaps Keith is meant, myth-like, simply to represent the dick-swinging patriarchy, but couldn't she at least have one male character who is a decent chap and has some balls ? Yes, she sends Midge to bed with the "quite female" guy, but, unlike Keith, there's no mention of him even having a sexual organ -- he is apparently "very good in bed", but by this point that could mean almost anything .....
       Girl Meets Boy is a clever and often very enjoyable read, and for the most part Smith makes her important points quite well. Too bad she ultimately overdoes it with the sexism, undermining her message. Still: well worthwhile.

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Girl Meets Boy: Reviews: The myth of Iphis: Ali Smith: Other books by Ali Smith under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Ali Smith was born in 1962.

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© 2007-2012 the complete review

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