I wasn’t into musical theater, I’m not half-Mexican, and I didn’t grow up in L.A. But, like the heroine of Nikki Darling’s debut novel Fade Into You (Feminist Press)—who is also named Nikki—I did grow up listening to Jane’s Addiction on my Walkman, my parents were divorced, and I spent my high school years smoking a lot of weed with my gay best friend and a bunch of other smart kids who posed as future drop-outs, wanting things from my mom and dad and teachers and friends and the whole fucking world that I wasn’t willing or able to show up for. Like Nikki, I also saw my car, my friend’s car, and anyone’s car, really, as “a waiting vehicle of change.” And I recognize that feeling of being an immigrant even when you aren’t—when it’s just your family that wound up in this country after a war, “US ‘citizens’ only when the US needed bodies to shoot full of holes in WWII and Vietnam…” as Darling puts it, where two generations later you still feel like you’re a little bit outside. I, too, wanted to burn the house down; to lie in a bed and be covered while someone tucked the hair behind my ears. Oh, Nikki, my Angeleno sister—if this is more of a love letter than a review, so be it.
Having listened to Mazzy Starr’s So Tonight That I Might See on repeat for many years, Fade Into You had me from the title. Written in a first person memoir style, the narrator, Nikki, tells us about her big musical theater dreams, but spends most of her time cutting class and eating fast food with her friends. Nikki is smart but projects a disinterested, chip-on-the-shoulder love, and she’s shooting the ambitions of her heart in the foot on the daily. “I’ve got someplace to be or maybe nowhere to go,” she says in the first pages. “It’s seven thirty. A now or never sort of hour.”
The propulsion of this raw, rollicking book is, like most coming-of-age stories, the question of whether or not our heroine is going to make it. Is she going to lose her virginity? Is she going to get kicked out of the magnet arts school that was supposed to pave her way to Broadway? Will her mother come home, will her sister be alright, and will her father and his family ever accept her for who she is? A withheld piece of information makes for a smart narrative reveal toward the end of the book, and lines like these hold the reader tight in that tender state of longing: “I want someone to make me dinner, to be home when I get home, to live with me, around me, near me, to see me. I want to go back in time DeLorean-style, to a past I can’t remember but feel withering away inside my bones.”
If you need a reason to still be reading coming-of-age novels, Nikki Darling delivers it. These years contain the crushing weight of the world—the expectations and disappointments of the people who created you; the love you think you do or don’t deserve; the throbbing, painful, terrifying thrill of becoming. And the joke’s on us if we think this process is a one-time experience, which is why reliving it in narrative feels at once distant and squeamishly close. “I guess you just do what they say and be who you are later,” says Nikki’s friend, Claire. Yes, you say if you were a teenager in the last millennium—yes, yes, exactly.
Fade Into You was released November 13, 2018 by Feminist Press.
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Margot Kahn is co-editor of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice collection This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Rumpus, Tablet, Publishers Weekly and elsewhere. Learn more at www.margotkahn.com.