Author: Kayla Rae Whitaker
Release Date: January 17, 2017
Publisher: Random House
Review Spoilers:  Mild
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Occasionally a book comes along that’s so emotionally raw and taxing that it leaves you thinking about it over and over again for a long time afterward. The Animators is one of those books. It’s a powerful story about the of strains friendship, overcoming tragedy, and accepting oneself. Captivating and heartbreaking, I had a hard time putting this one down. I worked my way through the first half of the book steadily over the course of three or four days and then rushed through the last half because I simply couldn’t put it down. 

The Animators was funny, engaging, and heartbreaking in all the best ways.

Now, I will freely admit that I don’t tend to pick up contemporary novels very often. But the blurb for The Animators drew me in from the first moment I read it. Focusing on the relationship between a pair of up-and-coming, risk-taking animators, the book follows Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses from their art school days through to the present day. 

Though these two best friends come from similar, underprivileged backgrounds they couldn’t be any more different. Mel is a loose cannon in every sense of the world. Wild and brash, she steals the scene any time the two of them are together and her antics at various conventions quickly become legendary. She’s extremely talented and yet extremely volatile – often distracted by any number of vices from alcohol to drugs to women. Sharon, meanwhile, is the more level headed of the two. But while Sharon and Mel are a team through-and-through she struggles with crippling self-doubt, unable to see her own worth.

While The Animators shows us the beginning of their relationship as poor outcasts at a fancy, liberal arts school in upstate New York, the bulk of the story takes place many years later after they have made a name for themselves. Their debut, full length animated film Nashville Combat (which focuses on Mel’s troubled childhood) earns them all kinds of prestige including an award that provides them a creative stipend meant to go toward their next big project.

Unfortunately, this is where things start to fall apart. It turns out fame and success were the final straw that to break the camel’s back as far as Mel and Sharon’s relationship was concerned. All the issues that had been building up over the years – including Sharon’s own insecurities – finally come to a head in spectacular fashion.

But what could have been the end of the dream team ends up being set aside after Sharon suffers a devastating stroke. Instead of taking the time to finally break away from their failing partnership, Mel sees Sharon’s stroke as her own sort of wake up call. Over time they begin to address their own fractured relationship while working on their next film, which this time is focusing on Sharon. Both of them really start to confront not only their pasts but where they hope to see themselves in the future. When tragedy strikes again, Sharon is left to struggle with the secrets they kept from one another and her place in the world.

The Animators is truly an emotionally devastating experience in every sense of the phrase. Relationships are challenged and destroyed forever. Friendships are tested and altered. And even when things seem to settle down there’s yet another tragedy lurking around the corner.

You fall in love with each and every one of the characters, from Sharon who tells the story to the outrageous Mel and every one in between. Interns, girlfriends, family members, and Teddy Caudill fill in the colorful cast of characters with each of them making their own mark on Mel and Sharon. Through Sharon’s perspective you get to know them and you get to see them grow and come into their own while she does as well.

I won’t lie to you, I shed some tears reading this book and if you get even slightly emotional while reading then you probably will, too. It’s so well written and the story is so compelling that I simply couldn’t help it. It didn’t matter how tumultuous Sharon and Mel’s relationship got, it always felt real. Sharon’s struggles with feeling overshadowed by Mel’s overbearing personality felt so real. It was all so relatable because I’ve been in those sorts of friendships before, too. I think we all have.

It’s hard for me to believe that this is Kayla Rae Whitaker’s first novel because it’s so well written. The story and characters are incredibly well fleshed out. While the pacing in the first half was a little slow, she never loses track of the story. Whitaker takes great care in developing Sharon and Mel especially and helping them grow and change over the course of the story. It’s all so realistic and engaging – which makes each and every fight and tragedy feel so real.

The Animators is a remarkable read. I loved the intimate look at these characters as not just friends but partners and I think the world of animation was a very unique way to frame their relationship. Few contemporary books have managed to engage me as thoroughly as this one has and it has earned a rare, personal distinction as one of those books I would recommend to just about anyone. Just make sure to steel yourself for the emotional rollercoaster that will follow.

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