It's Unlikable Ladies Make Compelling Books week here at LibraryHungry Headquarters, and I'm kind of proud of it. I've always thought that the ability to appreciate an unlikable narrator was a sign of more sophisticated taste than mine. The ability to appreciate a book for something besides pleasure seems like a sign of rarefied sensibilities.
I don't know if "rarefied sensibilities" really describes the audience for Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel--52 Book Minimum, where I first saw the book reviewed, would probably say newp to that one--but I liked the book. It's a psychological drama (I guess?) told in the past and the present.
In the past, Lane is brought after her mother's suicide to live with family she's never met at Roanoke, the house where her mother grew up. After a painful, contentious relationship with her mother, she finds friendship with her cousin Allegra and love and belonging with her grandfather. It's a beautiful place, and Lane feels like she belongs for the first time.
In the present, Lane has reluctantly returned to Roanoke for the first time in a decade after learning that Allegra is missing. There are ghosts in every corner as she comes to terms with the past and tries to find her cousin and best friend.
So much for the blurb. Roanoke is creepy in the stagnant, stultifying way that Southern towns are creepy in literature (though it's in Kansas, so it has the added benefit of being flat and featureless). I was most impressed that the author didn't try to keep Roanoke's dark secrets for a big reveal--close to the beginning you find out what sent Lane packing, and it doesn't take anything away from the drama. You still watch young Lane learn slowly what she's walked into and adult Lane try to come to terms with it and find her cousin.
Lane is...not likeable. She's a different kind of prickly than Lois in Experimental Film; Lois was awkward to the point of struggling to move through the world; Lane is pushing back hard against anything that comes close. After a childhood with a miserable and possibly mentally ill mother and the events that unfold in the past timeline, adult Lane has a bunch of classic maladaptive interpersonal behaviors. Cruelty feels more comfortable to her than kindness, and she finds herself accidentally-on-purpose creating situations where things can't get too raw or honest.
The mystery and/or thriller part of this wasn't that thrilling--I saw all the twists coming a long way off--but the characters were very human and fragile and real, and it kept me turning pages as fast as I could all the way through. If the central ugliness of Roanoke itself is a bit outside my ability to comprehend, well, I guess that's a good thing, as far as my moral character goes, right?
Oh, one other thing: if you're two teenagers naked in the back of a pickup truck in the middle of an empty field, how is he chewing on a toothpick? Did he have it in his mouth the whole time? Did he set it aside till you were...done? Or does he carry a box of toothpicks in the pocket of his discarded jeans? Inquiring minds want to know.
(Thanks to Netgalley for a review copy of this book.)