Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Returned

Hi, guys! Miss me?

Been reading a bunch, of course; lots of stuff to talk about. Also realizing as I open Blogger for the first time in over a year that I'm not sure I remember how to put words together to form thoughts and say...things...with them. So let's see how this goes.

Here and now, I just finished The Return, by Rachel Harrison, which, whatever its literary merit (read: lack thereof), absolutely sucked me and would not let go.

But I don't know if I can properly review it. See, going in, I only knew what the cover copy told me: Julie went missing two years ago, and by now she's presumed dead by everyone except her best friend Elise. So Elise is the only one who's not surprised when Julie turns up on her own front porch with no memory of where she's been for the past two years.

Now Elise and Julie and their other two best friends, Molly and Mae, are getting together at a Catskills hotel for a girls' weekend, to get to know each other again and maybe try to figure out what really happened to Julie.

That was all the info I had. Somehow, I had it painted in my mind as a domestic-thriller type of book, where it's probably the gorgeous and sweet-seeming husband hiding a dark secret, and probably all these women are various flavors of rich suburban white ladies.

I was very wrong.

I don't think it's a spoiler to get more specific, because I've seen other reviewers doing it, but if you would like to go in blind, here's the spoiler-free version:

the book is about a bunch of 20-something post-college women who are not very good at being emotionally mature people. While each one was definitely a trope (Molly wears no makeup and takes no bullshit; Mae is a rich personal stylist in NYC wearing weird, fashionable clothes and always sweet as candy; Elise has a dead end job and can't keep her life together), and they were all seriously not emotionally healthy.

I have rarely felt so much affection and hope for characters just like this. I generally have no use for 20-somethings who are aimless and whiny and not so much bad at self-examination as unaware that it exists. People who are miserable and not trying to fix it; people who are only into appearances and feel hollow; people who are prickly and rude and treat it like a badge of honor. These are my nemeses.

But what the author captures here in such an amazing way is their friendship. The kind of friendship that is most like a good sibling relationship--where you can doubt each other and lie to each other but still love each other, still always come back to each other. A friendship based on living as one organism with four bodies for the crazy, charmed years of college, so you know each other's strengths and weaknesses as well as your own. A friendship where years may pass but your new, older selves click right into place together.

So: portrait of a friendship, not what I expected. Not great literature, but very readable.

Now for the spoilers.

You are warned.


This is actually a horror novel. There's some haunted house tropes, some standard hotel-in-the-woods stuff, but in the end it comes down to body horror, and BOY HOWDY is it horrifying.

For so much of the book you mostly get hints. Heavy hints--like, it's really damned obvious hints, but the characters don't know they're in a horror novel, so maybe it's just the lighting that makes her hair seem thinner last night than today? Probably that's rusty condensation dripping from that vent, not some...other red stuff. Your suitcase totally didn't move by itself; you're remembering wrong. REALLY IT'S FINE.

Friends, it is not fine. And while, looking back on the book, there are many unexplained weirdnesses, many hints dropped that in the end don't actually go anywhere, by god I don't care. I spent most of the book looking up every half hour saying, "vampire? zombie? werewolf?" I finally came up with "wendigo," which is also not quite right but closer than anything else.

If your idea of fun is sitting in a hotel room with your besties, reality TV in the background, pouring liquor into half-full soda cans and knowing that you are the funniest, snarkiest, people you'll ever meet...and you don't mind the rattling in the walls or the occasional spurting gouts of blood....this one's for you.