From age eighteen on, I had a partner, a kindred spirit. I had a friend. Someone bound and determined to keep me from the worst in myself.
At a private East Coast college, two young women meet in art class. Sharon, ambitious but lacking confidence, arrives from rural Kentucky. Mel, brash and wildly gifted, brings her own brand of hellfire from the backwaters of Florida. Both outsiders, Sharon and Mel become fervent friends, bonding over their love of classic cartoons, their dysfunctional working-class families, and — above all — their craft: drawing. Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.
A decade later, Sharon and Mel are an award-winning animation duo, living and working in Brooklyn, and poised on the edge of even greater success after the release of their first full-length feature. But with this success comes self-doubt and cracks in their relationship start to form. When unexpected tragedy strikes, long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.
Funny and heartbreaking by turn, The Animators is a dazzling story of female friendship, the cost of a creative life, and the secrets that can undo us.
Review by Ilse Scheepers
Sharon and Mel meet in art school. They are both fleeing their white trash origins, they both love cartoons, they both aspire to tell their stories - gut-wrenching, searing stories - in their own voices. They form an intense bond, and after ten years, they become an award-winning animation duo.
Whitaker has written two women who burn across the page - Mel brightly like a magnesium flare, Sharon slowly like the white hot embers of a bonfire. Her exploration of their creative partnership is pitch perfect, and the best I've read. However, it's not without its tension.
Sharon resents babysitting the unbridled Mel, and Mel wants to shake Sharon out of her emotional deep-freeze. This conflict drives the duo to produce art that is so raw, so dark and full of terrible, deep knowledge, that I am glad I had the page between me and it to filter out some of the intensity.
To mention plot points would be to spoil the story, but suffice to say I burst out in ugly, wrenching sobs twice while reading this debut. Whitaker has perfectly captured that particular kind of female friendship that rewards and challenges, nourishes and frustrates. It leaves all those hackneyed, fictional cliched tropes in lesser fiction, where women are only competitors or frenemies, gibbering in the dust. And a good thing, too.
About the Author
Kayla Rae Whitaker was born and raised in Kentucky. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and of New York University’s MFA program, which she attended as a Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Scholar. She lives in Louisville. The Animators is her first novel.
'An engrossing, exuberant ride through all the territories of love - familial, romantic, sexual, love of friends, and, perhaps above all, white-hot passion for the art you were born to make ... I wish I'd written The Animators.' - Emma Donoghue, author of Room and The Wonder;'The Animators is a heartbreakingly beautiful, sharply funny, arrestingly unforgettable novel about love and genius, the powerful obsessiveness of artistic creation, and the equally powerful undertow of the past. Kayla Rae Whitaker writes like her head is on fire.' - Kate Christensen, PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author of The Great Man;'Every artist must come from somewhere; this is something you try to outrun, even as home fuels the creative engine. The Animators is a novel about a pair of cartoonists, but it's also about the complexity of creative friendship, about balance and jealousy, growing into yourself and living with your talent and trying to actually, impossibly get along in this cracked and unjust world. The result is unapologetic and raucous and compulsively readable; it is potato-chip-friendly and deeply, generously wise.' - Charles Bock, author of Alice & Oliver;'[An] outstanding debut ... Whitaker skillfully charts the creative process, its lulls and sudden rushes of perfect inspiration. And in the relationship between Mel and Sharon, she has created something wonderful and exceptional: a rich, deep, and emotionally true connection that will certainly steal the hearts of readers.' - Publishers Weekly (starred review);'A wildly original novel that pulses with heart and truth. That this powerful exploration of friendship, desire, ambition and secrets manages to be ebullient, gripping, heartbreaking, and deeply, deeply funny is a testament to Whitaker's formidable gifts. I was so sorry to reach the final page and Sharon and Mel will stay with me for a very long time.' - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest;'A compulsively readable portrait of women as incandescent artists and intimate collaborators.' - Elle;'An exquisite portrait of a life-defining partnership ... [The Animators] creeps up on you and then swallows you whole.' - Kirkus (starred review)