Take the clown out of this novel, and you've got Girl, a novel that tugs on your heartstrings for the title character Nita, a confused, fledgling young artist. Put the clown back in, and (former Mercury Arts Editor) Monica Drake's book has added dimension, but lost depth.
Clown Girl takes place in Baloneytown, a faltering neighborhood full of drug addicts, thieves, and other seedy characters. At its best, this setting offers hilariously tragic moments, like when Nita, dressed as "Juicy Caboosey," accidentally catches her fake boobs on fire while juggling, but more often, it leaves no room for subtlety—especially when it comes to Jarrod, the cop-cum-boyfriend of Nita, who repeatedly tells her that she's hiding behind her clown act, an obvious observation from the start.
Though Drake's choice to set her novel in a fictitious rundown clown neighborhood seeks to illuminate themes of life within the societal norm vs. life on the fringe, she never fully develops these ideas. Her best efforts are captured in moments where peripheral characters talk about police brutality or post signs reading "No Clowns," but Drake contrasts them with various glimpses of Nita's internal dialogue about marginalization, which point more to Nita's neuroses rather than true social injustice.
Where Drake does succeed is placing Nita in the liminal space between the two worlds of clowning and "normal" society. Every instance of Nita's longing and loss is touching, and every choice she grapples with conveys honesty. Unfortunately, the other characters fail to match her; mostly, they are uni-dimensional stereotypes. The only character comparable to Nita is Jarrod, but his actions are overly outrageous and unbelievable, even in the context of this book.
With its unusual subject matter and humanity of the title character, Clown Girl is poised to serve as a commentary on the marginalizing effects of societal norms, but it disappoints. No real insights are gleaned, and worse, by the last few chapters, the arc becomes clear, the storyline easy to guess, and even Nita falls victim to a rote ending.