Monday, July 10, 2017

Thrillers, Backfired

In following up on my thriller kick, I requested Final Girls, by Riley Sager, from Netgalley. Not to be confused with the Mira Grant book by the same title, this is a thriller about a woman who survived a horror movie scenario as a teenager and, ten years later, finds the safe boundaries of her comfortable life tested by a visit from a fellow "final girl."

Let me summarize my feelings with an anecdote. I was looking at a list of summer's best thrillers on Kirkus and when this book popped up (with a star!) my response was, "dammit, now I can't trust the rest of the list!" Sadly and in short, I did not love this book.

It started out really promising: Quinn lives with her perfect boyfriend in a perfect apartment in New York and runs a perfect baking blog. All is well. She is completely over what happened to her ten years ago, when her spring break trip to Pine Cottage ended with a slasher murdering all her friends and her running screaming out of the woods with no memories of the past hour.  She's fine. Even if the only people in her life besides her boyfriend are the cop who rescued her that night and another Final Girl.

The Final Girls are a club of three women who survived similar horror stories.  Lisa was the sole survivor or a sorority house massacre; Samantha survived a murderous rampage at a motel.  They've never met, but they've emailed, and the press is fascinated with them. Mostly that's in the past, though, until the beginning of this book, when we find out that Lisa--the oldest of the three, their den mother and emotional center--has committed suicide.

As Quinn's carefully composed life starts to fray at the edges, she's in for another surprise--Samantha, who dropped off the map years ago to avoid the press, appears on her doorstep. Quinn is torn between wanting nothing to do with the role of final girl that they share and a strange fascination with the other woman.  Thrillerly hijinks ensue.

I didn't hate this book, but I might under other circumstances have stopped reading it.  There are two ways to do this kind of heavy-handed thriller--one, go serious.  Throw the horror movie script out the window and think about how real people would behave in the very real scenario of something ridiculous and unbelievable.  Two, go the other way--total camp.  Maybe this is a world where horror movies don't exist, so no one can even imagine this situation.  Or maybe you just go over the top in a Cabin in the Woods type homage to the tropes. 

What you can't do is use the tools of camp--heavy-handed adherence to tropes--and take yourself this seriously.  Like, we're not just talking murderers, we're talking murderers with interesting weapons and face masks.  You can't treat that like a real thing that happens without building a whole world around this.  This book set up the horror to be too campy and then took it way too seriously.

Plot-wise, I couldn't figure out where things were going for a long time, and I actually found that most confusing.  The best part of the book was the last quarter, when I had finally figured out the trajectory of the story (and the twist, probably too early). The mystery here is whether Sam is who she claims to be, and whether she's got evil intentions or not.  But the thing is, she's so clearly and completely messed up that I just didn't care if she was explicitly sinister or just kind of a jerk. 

There is a thing that happens where you're drawn to someone horrible and you fight with them and try to walk away but it doesn't work and you just keep sitting down to drink Wild Turkey with them after midnight.  But--and maybe this is just me--I would never, ever do that with someone I didn't trust, so I could not understand Quinn's behavior toward Sam.  It made the book feel like a random assortment of happenings, rather than character development around a plot.

I think this speaks to a bigger problem with getting involved in a genre that's new to you.  I know my favorite genres (sci fi, fantasy) inside and out. I know the tropes and can see them from a distance, and recognize pretty well who's going to play with them vs. adhere to them vs. butcher them.  I know the backlist and the frontlist and what's coming next season and can winnow down what I want to read with comps and recommendations. 

But in a new genre, everything is unknown.  Who's advice do a trust? Whose taste do I agree with?  Not just which writers are good, but what style of thriller to I even enjoy?

I'm still learning.  And with romance or mystery, I can find trusted recommenders from other genres who can get me started.  Thrillers, though, I'm flying blind. 

So let's see what's next.


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