In my review of Wonder Boys I said I was tired of “books about middle aged men having midlife crises.” There’s a certain type of female protagonist I don’t really have patience for either: chain-smoking loner “fucked up” “bad girl” who who Dates Shitty Guys (for no apparent reason since the guys have no redeeming qualities, and Our Heroine freely and often acknowledges they’re shitty), Makes Bad Decisions, uses sex as manipulation, treats her friends and/or family like shit, and who admits to all this explicitly on the page, usually early in the book.
So I’ll grant that I knew I’d get pissy about this book pretty much a page in, when that was laid out immediately, and in the first person to boot.
These people surely exist in real life and there’s no rule saying they can’t be written interestingly, with depth and history and pathos, but that has in my experience been rare; authors tend to sub in the traits above for actual character and while all these traits are of course gender-neutral, these women end up sounding like a female version of a male antihero. There’s a certain rejection of femininity hanging over all these women, as if by subjecting these women to crappy men and drugs and poverty the authors aren’t writing a Typical Girl, they’re writing a Fucked Up Girl – they usually have mommy issues, they usually either encounter only women equally as fucked up as them or only men, or reject the women they meet. (This book falls into the former category.)
Real life doesn’t make sense. Moms can just be alcoholics with no money and that’s horrible, cancer can strike the undeserving as equally as the deserving and that too is horrible. The beauty of narrative, is that they organize events so they make sense.
(Notably, Sharp Objects did this character extremely well [and it’s worth noting Flynn didn’t include /all/ of these traits]; Dark Places less so. Their backstories were unique though, which surely helped, as did the genre – psychological thriller suits that archetype much better than generic mystery. The End of Mr. Y did this character badly, and I’m blanking on others but the archetype feels so familiar that I know they exist.)
In a first person novel you have to have a character whose head is interesting enough for 400 pages, or all the other successes of the book fall flat. Here, we have Mattie, who’s unlikeable and predictable, and whose decisions seem to follow a template rather than a unique personality. I had hope that we’d see another side of Mattie, but it wasn’t subverted, questioned, picked apart, anything. It was just there, until the epilogue, when it wasn’t.
And more broadly, in fiction we as readers demand a “why.” Real life doesn’t make sense. Moms can just be alcoholics with no money and that’s horrible, cancer can strike the undeserving as equally as the deserving and that too is horrible. But the beauty of narrative, all of it, oral tales of true events all the way to science fiction and fantasy, is that they organize events so they make sense. Maybe in a memoir, I might not need to know how Mattie’s mother Genie’s escape from home turned into raging alcoholism and abandonment of all her former interests, but in a novel I do. In a novel I want to see signs ahead of time that indicate how Mattie discovering these same events suddenly led to her becoming a well-adjusted member of the community. (I take no issue with epilogues that skip some time, but not when the contents therein aren’t even really foreshadowed.) I want to have an idea of why Luke or Father Whatsit had any interest in her (if it was pure hotness, or bad girl, or reformation, those are cool, but sell me on it).
There were a few redeeming qualities here: it was a fast read, and the cover was kickass. The prose itself was good, and DeCarlo wrote well-realized settings in Florida and Gandy. The mystery itself was well done – I certainly didn’t guess the twist and while I wouldn’t call it a twisty mystery it certainly kept me nicely engaged the whole time. There were a few genuine laughs, and I thought some of the men were actually written very well (Queeg and JJ stand out).
One could make an argument, if one wanted to do explanatory somersaults, that the use of aphorisms by Mattie’s stepfather and as section openers is a commentary about cliches: Mattie is a cliche, her mom was too, and she seems perfectly happy to fulfill the same cliche I mentioned above, but I think that’d be apologizing for a mediocre book.
In writing this I feel like I’m being pretty catty, considering this isn’t even that horrible a book, just lazy. I mentioned to a friend regarding the show GLOW, which I watched almost immediately after reading this book, that the show needed to do more than have one dinky conversation about subverting racial stereotypes to actually pull off subversion of stereotypes; otherwise, you’re just performing them with a nod. This book just performs cliches with a nod, and expects us to care. No dice