Even in the dawning years of the 21st century, there are women and girls who would give up anything for a man. That man doesn't have to be good. His needs and wants, no matter how fickle, would be prioritized over everything, including a woman's happiness, safety and the well-being of her children, if she has any. This is the bruised and bruising world of Christine Kandic Torres' debut novel, The Girls in Queens.
The story unfolds from 1996 to early 2007, beginning in an era in which egregious misogyny and slut shaming are rampant, and ending just after Tarana Burke launches the #MeToo movement. Of course, the protagonist, Brisma, and her best friend, Kelly, who live across the street from each other in Woodside, Queens, have no inkling of the changes to come. In 1996, the girls are 11 years old and lack political consciousness, though they know that puberty is making boys and even grown men notice them in ways they don't particularly like. Neither girl is a wallflower, especially Kelly, who's not above getting physical with a neighborhood ignoramus. But for the two friends, being harassed, belittled or ignored is just part of life. It's like taking your life in your hands to cross Queens Boulevard, or rooting for the hapless Mets: Now and then, you have to cross the street, and cheering for the Yankees is never an option. So what can be done?
Handsome and suave Brian is one of Kelly and Brisma's childhood friends. As they enter adolescence, he takes a liking to both girls, which causes them to fall out (but just as quickly fall back in; they're sisters from different mothers). Then in 2006, Kelly and Brisma discover something about Brian that pushes their tolerance of male misbehavior to the limit. At first the women support him instinctively, until Brisma, a budding journalist, can't any longer. This causes a rupture between her and Kelly that threatens to become permanent.
Kandic Torres' way with her characters is superb. Kelly's toughness hides an almost sickeningly intense fear and vulnerability, which few but Brisma see. Another neighbor, an Iraq War veteran that readers are initially wary of, becomes a voice of wisdom. Brisma's mother, who first modeled female deference for her daughter, blesses Brisma's ambitions to both write and leave their neighborhood behind. The Girls in Queens is a moving debut from a writer to watch.