The debut novel of Kayla Rae Whitaker, The Animators tells the story of Sharon Kisses, one part of an animating duo, and her best friend, Mel Vaught. After originally meeting in college, ten years on Sharon and Mel are promoting their award-winning film but are caught in the most dreaded place that artists can find themselves. What’s next?
The Animators is frank in its portrayal of dealing with the sacrifices (financial, social and psychological) implicit in pursuing artistic ambitions. It confronts the fallout of the paradoxical lives of artists – how they are at once fascinated by the world but separate from it, observant of people but by nature self-absorbed.
And in a time where appropriation of story is a hot button topic, Whitaker weaves in both sides of the aisle with great finesse, but doesn’t give a hard answer to the question most essential to making memoirist art: how much of my own and others’ story can I lay claim to?
I opened this novel expecting a particular type of narrative – a close friendship balanced with a work partnership that boils over into resentment. What I encountered instead was much darker and far more interesting. The ‘powerful female friendship’ tagline can feel trite, but The Animators made Sharon and Mel’s complex relationship not a nod to the Bechdel test, but its narrative backbone.
Though The Animators is primarily Sharon’s story, it’s strengthened through the lens of a friendship that was as imperfect as the two women within it. Like Sharon and Mel themselves, Whitaker went for small brush strokes that took on a life of their own; the development of their creative lives running alongside a developing understanding of themselves and one another.
If there is one gripe to be had about this book, and I don’t really have many, there were decisions made about Mel’s character arc that followed some fairly tired tropes. Though I understand why those decisions were made and how they pulled Sharon’s story forward, The Animators hitting those familiar beats was disappointing from a book that managed to surprise me at almost every turn.
However, where The Animators shines most for me is Whitaker’s descriptions of character and place. An enviable talent, Whitaker manages to pinpoint the exact detail to portray a character or setting in that moment. Line after line, Whitaker conjures these subtly drawn little moments like, ‘he’s smoking his cigarette the way some country boys do…pinched between forefinger and thumb.’
It’s also evident that Whitaker has a deep love for animation and cartoons. In every spare moment, The Animators dissects, describes and exults in the animation process, which could have been tiring for a layman, but Whitaker interspersed with enough of Sharon’s entertaining voice that it was engaging and organic.
The Animators is an outstanding debut novel. It manages to be irreverent and funny, dramatic and contemplative. It’s about confronting your past, pursuing your dreams and the relationships that change you. Most of all it’s about the drive to create and the damage it can wreak. And yet, it’s more than the sum of those parts – in short, excellent art.