Sharon Kisses sticks out like a sore thumb when she arrives at Ballister, a private liberal arts college in upstate New York, from darkest Kentucky with a full scholarship and a talent for drawing. Soon, however, she meets Mel Vaught, a forthright and wickedly funny fellow art student from rural Florida and the two become fast friends and eventually business partners. Kayla Rae Whitaker’s novel then catches up with Sharon and Mel ten years later when they have become the titular animators after their feature-length film Nashville Combat becomes a surprise hit. The film covers some of the darker — and funnier — moments of Mel’s past and her upbringing and indeed, much of the rest of The Animators sees both Sharon and Mel facing up to their pasts and their diverse family issues.
Like Sharon and Mel’s work, The Animators is bold and imaginative, often funny and sometimes sad — tragic even, at times. I read this book as an e-book and hadn’t re-read the blurb before I started reading and although you wouldn’t exactly describe this as a suspense novel, it surprises as often as it delights. One of the main reasons Whitaker’s novel works so well is that the two central characters are realistic and relatable, as well as being likeable even when as they make mistakes and act out. It’s also rare to see a novel that focuses on both the friendship and business relationship of two women.
Mel is outspoken, drinks too much and sometimes shows Sharon up; Sharon is crippled with self-doubt, constantly asking herself whether she is just riding along on Mel’s coattails. Sharon is no shrinking violet, though: she’s coarse, honest and passionate about her ‘sketching’. “I had chosen art because I needed something to make use of the bright lights that had existed in my head for as long as I could remember,” she explains.
Meanwhile, Whitaker’s dialogue is keenly observed and her novel portrays richly contrasting visions of line in the Kentucky Appalachians and of the alternative Brooklyn art scene. At times The Animators isn’t an easy read — the darker themes it covers cannot be brightened by the levity and humour both the author and the characters try to evoke — but it is an engrossing and witty tale of friendship, talent and family. I also included it in the longlist of my top books of 2016.
Disclaimer: The Animators was published by Random House on 31 January. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.