Good Graces

Finding our covens


in Pop Studies


As a child, I believed my 16-year-old babysitter, at the peak of adulthood, had all of the answers one could have. She had hip kicks, cool hair, and was in high school, which I assumed to be the height of “getting it.” She was old enough to understand the complexities of the universe (for me, at the time, that meant she could make mac and cheese from a blue box), yet not old enough to be out of touch with youth culture. I could not wait to become a teenager and to be as cool as she and the other teens I saw on TV, like Kelly Kapowski, Shawn Hunter, and Clarissa Darling. When I reached that threshold, I learned I was drastically wrong and shifted my gaze to 18 . . . and then at 18 to 21, 21 to 30. Now I’m just waiting for the comfort of the void.

Approaching middle age, I have found myself drawn to coming-of-age narratives which reflect the anxieties that I was too busy being anxious to recognize. I wouldn’t say I was an incredibly morose teen, but I did listen to a fair amount of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People in my bedroom and spent many of my lunches hanging out with the school librarian (who let me work as an assistant during my study halls as well). I wasn’t, however, in touch with these feelings at the time, so I return to fiction, in part, to relive and remember those moments of uncertainty and discomfort and to conduct an emotional scan on my current self — to remember I still live in a state of “I don’t know.”

Recently, in a three-month block, I read a handful of novels marketed to young adults because there seemed to be a surge of YA novels addressing anxiety and identity. Emma Cline’s The Girls, for example, deals with obsession by way of cults and the desire to belong, while Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire tackles bullying and marginalization, and Alison Umminger’s American Girls unpacks sisterhood and exploitation. None of these books really seem for teenagers, though they explore the inner lives of teenage girls — their insecurities, obsessions, and dangers. But as I’ve grown older (and supposedly more knowledgeable), I have not outgrown the anxieties of my teenage years, outside of learning how to “manage” better or, at least, having more confidence that lying in bed for two days to recuperate from everyday life is necessary.

I don’t recall how I came across The Graces. The cover had come across my path a few times before I read the description. The title showed up on lists of great Young Adult literature published in 2016. It checked all my boxes: teenage girls, crushes, and witches. I inhaled the book.

Between Jessa Crispin’s recent Smart Set piece about women and witchcraft; Anna Biller’s lush film The Love Witch; and the occult flirtations of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, witches have been on my brain. And apparently, on author Laure Eve’s as well. As I read, I kept finding allusions to these other works: a series of winks and nods indicating the author and I are on the same page. Rosemary’s Baby, The Virgin Suicides, The Craft. I was stunned by all these reference points we share — not used for their “cool” value or exploited for their novelty, but rather used in admiration, celebration. It felt, as I read, as if we were building a community for those of us who had found ourselves isolated and in turn burrowed into popular culture, particularly into those texts that helped explore or celebrate our weirdness.

I wanted to talk more with her about her influences and set up an interview, excited to commiserate over our love of ’90s pop culture. The interview was rough, and it’s no fault of of my interviewee, who took each one of my small technical failures in stride. We spoke for an hour. There was, at least I thought, so much tape. Needless to say, nothing was recorded. Luckily, I’m a compulsive note-taker and Eve was gracious enough to send me responses to my follow-ups.

We spent most of our time talking about her influences, many of which were the treasures of my teen years. The Graces could be a Gothic Virgin Suicides, a subdued Heathers, or a more rural The Craft. Readers interact with the characters through River, a new girl who finds herself becoming obsessed with the Graces, three impossibly beautiful and elusive siblings. They are well-known and yet do not cultivate a public allure in the same way of the Kardashians, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus. Instead, they are more like Shirley Jackson’s protagonists in We Have Always Lived in the Castle: ostracized but notorious. River, as a newcomer, becomes enchanted with the family and befriends them. Despite feeling an outsider, her acceptance by the siblings is seen in and of itself a success, even a sort of redemption.

The fact that they’re teens does not minimize the range of feelings in this book or the mystery that unfolds as River peels back the family’s layers and inevitably reveals her own character flaws. While placed in the Young Adult genre, these aren’t the two-dimensional characters often associated with “teen fiction.” They are no doubt hormonal and irrational, but they are also independent and complicated.

One of the first things we discussed was The Craft, a film beloved by my friends and me as we approached adolescence. It was a movie I watched in a basement somewhere at a fifth-grade slumber party. The Craft was part coming-of-age, part horror, and one of the few films released in the 1990s that felt as if it were created for girls on the margins. A teen girl, Sarah (Robin Tunney), moves and starts at a new school, only to fall in with a group of outcasts who are too “unruly.” They are too poor or too physically scarred or too black to fit into with their peers. Their acceptance and reclamation of their otherness further frightens their classmates. Their presumptive leader, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), is confrontational and protective of her friends. The group claims witchcraft and look to fill out their coven. Sarah fits the bill. Of course, things go haywire. They become incredibly powerful. Nancy begins to overstep, harming people. It all felt edgy, at 12 or 13, to watch teen girls engage with the dark arts. The idea of friends and secrets and magic was seductive.

That evening, we were unsuccessful at playing “light as feather”, and I was too chicken to play with the Ouija board. Despite being the top-grossing film the week it debuted and maintaining a top-ten listing for five weeks, the film didn’t leave a significant mainstream cultural dent. It did, however, develop its own coven of fans: primarily adolescent girls who stumbled upon it, identified with the characters’ adolescent struggles, and found solace in the potential for magic. It’s not a film that necessarily discourages viewers from seeking out magic or keeping secrets; rather, the film suggests that it is easy to become consumed by these powers, for the ego to swell, and for bad things to happen.

The same feelings I had watching The Craft in my adolescence returned while reading The Graces. Its narrative is similar: A new girl (with an alluded-to complicated past) falls in with a set of mysterious and beguiling students. The uncertainty associated with being the new kid and the transgressive nature of witchcraft is potent throughout — the potential to be tediously normal and yet completely beyond normal also links the narratives. It’s clear teenage anxiety is something that speaks to Laure Eve.

Eve has written multiple fictional narratives involving witchcraft. In a short essay for Buzzfeed, she clarifies why. Eve explains the significance of witches’ power, particularly the fact these narratives typically emphasize women’s power — men are not the heroes. It’s a coven, a group of women who discover their individual powers and come together to exploit their collective forces. That same sense of collectivity rings true in other narratives from the ’90s, though not all are witch-centric. There’s Clueless, The Crucible, The Virgin Suicides, But I’m a Cheerleader, Jawbreaker, Now and Then, Mermaids: films about adolescent angst and power in numbers. The Craft, in particular, highlights power in plurality. When talking with me about the film as an influence, Eve gushed about its significance and empowering message of accessible witchcraft. Power isn’t just for those born with it; rather, witchcraft can be learned and practiced by anyone who devotes themselves to the rituals. That message was what remained empowering for Eve and others of our generation. When approaching her book agent with the premise of The Graces, she used The Craft as a signpost. Though he was unfamiliar with it, she encouraged him to include the film in his pitch to editors — the reply was resoundingly positive. She recounted: “He said ‘I’ve never had so many editors tell me “OH MY GOD! I LOVE THAT MOVIE”’ — it was definitely a touchstone of women of a certain age.”

There is an assortment of films and books I wish I would have indulged in earlier, as an adolescent — it is a growing list of texts about women’s empowerment and identity negotiation. The books, films, and television programs are not all overtly feminist (and there are definitely some feminists who doubt whether anything made in a commercialized space can be feminist at all). Young Adult fiction seems to be a happening place for frank conversations about youth, anxiety, and sexuality. In reading novels like The Girls, American Girls, and The Graces, relationships seem a bit more complex than the books I read in my youth, the characters’ motivations a bit murkier. River, the speaker in The Graces, is our entry point into the narrative, but from the get-go we know to remain cautious. Her admiration for the Grace family and crush on Fenrin Grace, in particular, clouds her understanding of their family — she waffles between being a witness and telling a story, convincing herself of the truths her brain creates, and we have to fight our own desire to trust her word.

Eve explained to me that her pleasure in writing the unreliable narrator came from a love of texts like American Psycho, The Usual Suspects, Atonement, and The Sixth Sense. These are all novels intended for adult readers, and when pushed more about The Graces as a Young Adult novel, she clarified that books about young adults have always existed, despite the apparently new cachet that comes with the classification: What were once “coming-of-age” novels, she said, like Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders, have been remarketed and packaged as Young Adult. Eve, however, received remarks from readers in a range of ages, including a 13-year-old girl who wrote a multiple-page response regarding her interpretation of the complex themes and relationships and a 60-year-old man who informed her he probably wouldn’t have read the book if not for The New York Times, but he was glad he did. She used the latter example to expand on marketability — while classifications aim to help readers, they also demarcate lines. It’s hard to imagine that same 60-year-old deciding to catch a screening of The Craft or sit down for an episode of Pretty Little Liars. But, as Eve pointed out, all have the potential to take pleasure in fictions not necessarily marketed to them. For her, Jean Claude Van Damme’s aren’t necessarily ones she can identify with — a hard-bodied hero, martial artists, and often violent bouts — but she self-identifies as a fan. “It’s fun,” she said. “You have to be willing.”

Openness is clutch. The other common thread that ties The Graces to other texts about adolescence is the encouragement to take chances, even if they yield unsuccessful results. For River, it means breaking out of her shell in order to make contact with and ingratiate herself to this unattainable group of teens. For others, it’s breaking codes, sowing oats, and rebelling against societal norms reinforced by parents and schools.

The Graces isn’t a revolutionary book in form or content. It’s a book about intensities. The feelings that come through River’s account are full of apprehension and love (and all this encompasses lust, admiration, and acceptance) and are those we also feel for her and the Graces — at times it’s easy to get lost in the Grace mythos, in the same way it is easy to burrow into the newest Kardashian drama or Taylor Swift feud. I’ve been caught up in one of the final remarks Eve made during our conversation: One of the greatest lies is that once we reach adulthood we know everything that exists. I’m in agreement with her that this sentiment is “complete bollocks”, as I feel as if I know less than what I knew a decade ago.

We seem very concerned with forward motion, as evidenced by the fact that we want movies to be bigger or bolder, literature to break form and be different. There seems little room, at least critically, to admire the past and live in it for a short period of time. Nostalgia is looked at shadily — as if false or delusional. Why ponder the past when you have the future ahead? The Graces never fully “takes us back”, but Eve delivers slices of our history back through Easter egg-like references to meaningful texts of our past (at least for a particular set of readers) and potent adolescent feelings. And Eve provides these small doses — playfully — in ways that reconnect with our internalized younger selves.

I’m reminded of a recent Australian play-turned-film, Girl Asleep. It’s Greta’s 15th birthday. Her bullies turn up for a bit of emotional torture. She ruthlessly shuts down her only friend, a guy, who admits his crush on her. She escapes to her bedroom and indulges in this beautifully absurd fantasy with monsters and warriors. The narrative is a really a battle with herself as she fights to stay a child without the complicated emotions that come with adulthood, despite the lack of choice she has growing up. The emotional weight of her recognizing her younger form is devastating — a reminder of what has been lost during the process of growing up and figuring out what that means.

Upon waking, her cooler, older sister walks into her room to add some encouragement. Her sister:

I just woke up one morning and things were different. It was like some new person turned up inside my body and kicked the old one out and there was nothing I could do about it. I know what you’re going through now is shit. Confusing and you’re pretty much hating it. You’re not alone, alright?

The reassurance offered in this moment between sisters is one that seems necessary for youths coming of age, particularly those who feel marginalized, like maybe high school won’t be the best of time their life. Eve wrote The Graces in such a way that reminds us adults who would pick up a book about witches and teens of what we might need to hear — the empathy and reassurance that there were other weirdos like us listening to R.E.M.’s “Drive” on repeat while considering how they were going to negotiate the hallway and politics of middle school the following day. River’s narration felt familiar, and granted not always happily so. There was a hint of that adolescent whine for which I have little patience as an adult. I am much more likely to identify with the parents, understanding their humanity as opposed to rejecting their role as ambivalent authority figures.

I often think back to the fantasies I had as a young person looking up to people older than 13. I thought I would be more certain of myself, that my legs would expand me to six feet tall, and that I would be able to rollerblade. Instead, I spent a majority of time watching movies, following my friends’ crushes home and giggling, and trying too hard to be ambivalent and cool. The Graces reminded me of the pleasure in that previous fantasy and past anxiety. It’s not a smugness or the sense I know better because I am older. It’s the sense of familiarity and pleasure in finding somebody else who at some other time felt the same way.

When prompted about the future of the series and the secrets she’d be willing to share about the destiny of the Grace family, Eve laughed. “River is done.” The sequel will go from outsider perspective to insider, taking the voice of daughter Summer, River’s “in” with the Grace family. My younger self looks forward to further indulging in the supernatural, the drama, and the exposed secrets that will no doubt transpire. •

All images created by Emily Anderson. Melinda’s high school yearbook photo courtesy of Kathryn Kennedy.


Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.