This book started as a 5 and ended as a 3. I’d read Flynn’s other two books, and expected something deeply dark and nasty and twisted, with an ending even more unexpectedly nasty.
It starts out with Camille, a beautiful woman whom we suspect (and later confirm) is deeply broken. She’s got scars she doesn’t show, literally and figuratively. She spends most of her day drunk. She has a conflicted relationship with her mother (and that’s understating the case.) The fact that she’s back in her hometown, where all the unhealthy relationships from high school have fossilized in adult women, where she’s investigating a case with no traction, is almost the least of her problems.
The case that she’s researching is a serial case involving children. So if you’re the kind of person who hates to see children hurt, definitely avoid this novel. It’s gruesome. I usually hate serial killer stories, because they often feel like serial killers are admirable, even though they’re a bunch of dumb cowards who do something that profits no one, not even themselves, like people who commit arson on buildings they haven’t bothered to insure.
But Flynn doesn’t idolize her characters. She shows us every facet of their sick lives. The Missouri she talks about in her acknowledgments is a kind and sunny place full of good friends and even better family, but we don’t see that in the novel. This Missouri is an oubliette where poisonous families breed poisonous children who hurt one another.
The reoccurring theme of this novel is women who hurt one another. The men in this novel are largely absent, invisible, or distant support staff. Girls stab other girls in the eye with scissors, stab girls with pins, tease girls, make them do sexual things. Women grow up to hurt one another in the same way, or more subtle ways, than they did as teens. It’s the hell-hole of middle school writ large. We forget, as adults, how being called a name in the hallway when you’re a pre-teen can ache like a scar for years, but when children are forcing other children to do unspeakable things, it kicks it up loud enough to remind us.
But this was my main problem with the novel. Flynn tries too hard to show us every aspect of female-to-female cruelty, and she doesn’t have enough characters, or pages, to show us the breadth. She crams too much into too small a cast of characters, especially Camille/Adora’s family. I can believe a cutter or an eyelash plucker who hurts herself. I can believe a mean girl who loves to hurt others. I have a harder time believing someone who does both. I didn’t need so many different kinds of mental illness when one or two of them, done very well, would have been better. Amma was the least believable. The pre-teen who acts like a spoiled pampered princess, dressing like a child, sucking her thumb, playing with and obsessing over her dollhouse is a different girl from the over-sexualized drug-using mean-girl who lords over her coterie of not-as-pretty peers. The former lacks social skills, the latter has too many. They could have, and perhaps should have, been separate people. If she were the focus of the novel, perhaps Flynn could have made her believable, a study of an anomaly, but with so many bizarre characters already, she just didn’t resonate as true.
My main problem with this book is that I read it after GONE GIRL. I think this book is not as good as either of her others. After GONE GIRL I was like “this is chillingly plausible, I wonder how many times this has actually happened?” and after DARK PLACES, I was like “this is bizarre, but it makes a perverse sort of sense.” After this one, I felt as though the antagonists motives were not askew from the personality we’d been presented with. It’s still fun, in a “look at this gross infected scab” sort of way. The way Flynn describes, and has other characters describe their setting is incisive and brilliant and cynically accurate. She can do a broken protagonist very well. There were a few red herrings, but I basically nailed it in chapter 5 or 6. I enjoyed reading it. I just hoped she would have had some surprise twist ending that I didn’t see coming.