The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Rating: 4.5 stars
I loved this book. It was touching, depressing, and hopeful all at once. The Animators tells the story of creative team Mel and Sharon from Sharon’s perspective, starting from their first shared joint at an elite college through the effects of their first major animated movie more than ten years later.
When Sharon and Mel meet in a freshman art class at their Ivy league college, they bond over their love of animation and scholarship student status. Sharon is from the redneck part of Kentucky, and Mel grew up on her aunt’s swamp farm in Florida after her mother is arrested for prostitution. From the start Mel is the natural artist and outgoing face of the duo. Sharon is the hard working mother-hen who keeps Mel in line. While Sharon is also an amazing animator, she secretly feels that Mel is the real talent and everyone knows it.
I can relate to this dynamic a bit. In college, my roommate and best friend was amazing, outgoing, and somewhat reckless, especially with partying. I was the quiet one who thought I didn’t belong at this college (scholarship kid), and would frequently have to take care of my friend. If people needed something from us, they knew to come to me because I would take care of the details. While we were both smart economics majors, my friend’s confidence and bright personality would make me think I was nowhere near her level. I felt like I was a fraud, and I was afraid everyone else knew it too. Afraid that they only put up with me because I was my friend’s caretaker/assistant.
That type of insecurity can start to slip into your relationship, as Sharon finds out after she and Mel receive a prestigious grant ten years after graduating. This is on the heels of the overwhelmingly positive reception for their first full length movie based on Mel’s early life. While it’s great that all of their hard work is finally paying off, the success and new-found fame in their circle, plus the intimate plot of the movie, leads to Mel’s out of control partying. As Sharon is left to clean up her messes, like always, those fractures in their relationship start to show and cumulate in a viscous argument on a subway platform shortly before Sharon suffers a stroke at age 32.
I solved my insecurity issues by separating myself academically from my friend. We pursued other interests with our economics major (consulting vs I-banking, academic research positions vs finance clubs), so it naturally resolved itself. Her partying also thankfully calmed down by our last year in college, and we stayed best friends and roommates through all four years. But what if we hadn’t separated? What if we had become a team like Mel and Sharon? What would have happened with that insecurity and resentment for picking up the mess?
That’s while I feel like we were cheated a bit with the stroke. As Sharon explains, it hit the reset button on that fight they were just starting to have. I wish we could have seen it’s natural progression and resolution. If Sharon is like me, there is the very real possibility that she would have caved and apologized to keep the peace. It seemed like a legitimate fight that needed to be had, though. Could they have made it through? I would like to think yes, since Mel dropped her life to care for Sharon, proving the depth of her friendship and just how important Sharon is to her. They consider each other family.
After the stroke, they travel to Kentucky to see Sharon’s dysfunctional family and help Sharon deal with a traumatic incident from her past. The rest of the novel follows the duo as they use Sharon’s childhood for their next project. I don’t want to spoil the rest, but it seems to perfectly capture a maturing friendship.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the creative process, dealing with tragic childhoods, and intense friendships.