I am back after a long hiatus; dealing with a lot of emotions and worldly minutiae after the death of my father. But life goes on, and so does the blog. The Rust Maidens is an especially apropos read for this memory-crowded time. Like the main character, I was born in Cleveland and grew up in the area during the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
The Rust Maidens—Gwendolyn Kiste, 2018. Rating: 3.5/5
Decades after graduating from high school, Phoebe returns to her tired old Cleveland neighborhood. The nearby steel mill, once a source of both jobs and pollution, is closed and deteriorating. One-by-one, the homes on Phoebe’s block are being razed for condos. The narrative switches between past and present as Phoebe recalls the summer after her graduation, when a handful of her friends, including her cousin and BFF, Jacqueline, began slowly transforming into creatures of glass and metal. How Phoebe was the only one who stood up for them. How angry she was at the gossipy ‘80s stay-at-home moms and hard-working but hidebound steel working dads who unjustly reject the girls. How much Phoebe wanted to shatter stereotypes and go to college.
The girls, now known as the rust maidens, become a freaky phenomenon, drawing the FBI, doctors, and gawkers to their street. Phoebe faces a losing battle to defend the girls from public ostracization and stop their metallic metamorphosis.
The Rust Maidens leaves me conflicted. The gritty, economically-depressed setting resonates with my childhood–the polluted Cuyahoga river infamously caught fire the year I was born. Kiste’s descriptions, especially of the girls’ transformation, are exquisite: poetically capturing both the beauty of decay and poignantly highlighting the girls’ sole—if uncanny—opportunity to buck stifling cultural expectations. It is Phoebe’s self-righteous anger that emotionally misses mark for me. It feels one-note, as do many of the characterizations of neighbors and family members. The storyline is pat in some ways yet leaves readers with dissatisfying holes. I wanted the book to be not longer, but deeper. That said, The Rust Maidens is undeniably original, thought-provoking…and bleak.