I am a huge Krysten Ritter fan, have been since her Veronica Mars days. (Here you should picture a meme or video clip of Gia asking Logan what he really thinks of her and Veronica dragging him away before he starts something that will end in tragedy, which meme does not appear to exist.) Right now she's famous because of Jessica Jones, of course, in which she plays the Marvel universe's cynical, haunted, alcoholic, superpowered PI. Remember this; it bears on our story later on.
When I saw she wrote a book, a mystery called Bonfire, I was all in. I'm a fan of Ritter's work, I'm a fan of her characters and a lot of the stories she's been in. No reason to think she can write, but no reason to think she can't; she seems like a very smart woman. And the book is about a troubled woman going back to her hometown to figure out a thing that happened in high school, so okay, sure thing!
Oh, I wanted to like this, reader. I want only good things to happen to Krysten Ritter. I want her to be happy and successful. The character is an alcoholic investigator who is haunted by a troubled past, so Jessica Jones herself should be quite comfortable with the characterization. The main character, Abby, is described as plain and awkward, but I still pictured her as Ritter, with that gangly Jessica Jones, "I'm not trying to look gorgeous" thing going on.
But unfortunately, I don't get her. She was bullied horribly in high school, for being awkward, and poor, and from a too-religious family. Now she's a hot-shot lawyer with an environmental defense organization, and she's come back to town to investigate whether the One Big Corporation that keeps the town alive is poisoning the water, though of course what she's really doing is Confronting Her Past.
Except it's not clear what about her past needs confronting. Her ex-best-friend-turned-worst-enemy got mysteriously sick in high school, but it was "proven" that she faked it for attention, then she "ran away" and no one ever heard from her again. For some reason Abby is haunted by this girl, but it makes neither rational sense (which, okay, your high school obsession won't always) nor emotional sense.
Neither does her intense attraction to a guy named Condor who is one of those salt-of-the-earth good guys you find when you go back to your corrupt small town. As soon as she makes eye contact with him she wants to be near him but doesn't let herself, because Reasons, I guess? It also doesn't make sense that she makes nice with her second-biggest high school bully (like, she panics and befriends her instead of expressing her real emotions). Or that she drifts away from her investigation partner. I guess the drinking makes sense, but the beach party where only the members of one graduating class attend doesn't. Once you grow up, even in a small town, you have acquaintances a few years older and younger than you.
The hardest part is that the writing is so close to good, you can feel the wind go by as it misses. The language is neither overly flowery nor workmanlike; it's got a nice level of character and flourish that would be perfect if it was just a bit more deft. I have some highlights that struck me as off, but most of them don't make sense out of context. She refers to high school as "spending years as a bullseye in a field full of arrows." It's so close to being a solid metaphor but maybe because a bullseye can't move, or maybe because a field full of arrows sounds like they're standing still.
Or "how many storage rooms are built out of broken hearts and broken relationships, dead fathers and brothers and wives." That's an interesting thought and image, how much sad, dusty past you find in your average storage business, but "storage room built out of" seems wrong, doesn't it? Like it's filled with composed of, something else. I understand the metaphor, but it sounds wrong to my ears.
At this point, about halfway in, I'm pretty sure I can guess what's going to happen, to the point where I'll be pleased and excited if I'm wrong. (See scare quotes above for hints as to my guesses.) But the fact is that it really feels like I'm reading about someone who is going through the motions of being a disaffected noir detective confronting her past without actually thinking or feeling anything that said noir detective would actually think or feel in the context I'm following.
I'm so sorry, Krysten Ritter. I really do see the bones of something good here. I just think there are a few more drafts, or maybe another novel, between what I'm reading now and a really great detective story (in which you will definitely play the lead role).
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for review.