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Monday, December 18, 2017

The Female of the Species and Is Murder Sometimes Amazing? Discuss.

You can love someone down to their core and they can love you right back just as hard, and if you traded diaries you’d learn things you never suspected. There’s a part of everyone deep down inside of them not meant for you. - Mindy McGinnis, The Female of the Species
I think this is going to be one of those posts that are just a straight up review of the book. I hope you stick with me, because we're definitely going to get into some real stuff here that hopefully applies to you and me and, uh, the entire human race. But here's the deal: I am pretty picky about the books I read and I gave this one 3 stars which is almost as low as it seems to get.

I like books, it turns out, and the ones I don't finish, I don't write about. Take The Goldfinch, for example. I might give it another chance, but I listened to it all of the way to Moab and back and a large portion of that drive was outside of cell service. This meant that I didn't have any other options, since my phone is always full of dumb pictures I took because they might be good Instagram jokes and I always end up streaming music and podcasts. So I was stuck with The Goldfinch and I almost threw my phone out of the window. I have a hardcopy at home that I bought at a thriftstore with the idea that maybe I would give it away as a contest to get more people reading my blog but then I had a thought that what if they don't like my blog? 

There are like two worst case scenarios there. I say let's have a giveaway with good books in it (I thought The Goldfinch was a good book back then haha) and then a bunch of strangers go to my blog and say this is bad and then they put on my Facebook page the words "this is bad," and I feel sadder than Rian Johnson when people send him death threats because he broke Star Wars. The other worst case scenario is that nobody participates at all and then I look like a fool.

I don't want to talk about my problems with The Goldfinch, though, other than it seems like roughly 40% of the words in that book don't matter and do nothing to advance the story in any way whatsoever. Ugh. I hated it. I don't think I'm going to finish it ever. Just seeing it on my nightstand makes me angry. Maybe I'll light it on fire?

Again, though, what I want to talk about is The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis. I am sorry to say that this book is kind of a mess. I mean, three stars is still means that there is more good than bad. It was interesting enough for me to finish it for sure, and the ending almost, almost saved it. But the more I think about it, the more frustrated I get.

The cover is very fun

There are huge swaths of this book that I am totally here for. It's written all in first-person and puts us in the minds of three characters, two of whom are interesting. They are Alex, who is a murderer, Peekay, who is the pastor's kid (PK do you get it? Her real name is Claire), and Jack, who is the smartest kid in school and also the best athlete and also the handsomest. Jack has it really hard.

I get why Jack's there, because it's important to have a male perspective on the dumpster fire of misogyny that is the town and high school where these three teens live. But from what I remember almost the entirety of his chapters are about how his feelings for this girl are different than how he's ever felt for a girl before. This is definitely a real thing I identified with, and is probably not just a guy thing. He gets that he's attracted to women on a physical level and is kind of amazed by how it feels to be into a girl on a deeper level. I just don't think we need to hear him say it one million times. Also he's kind of dumb for being so smart. I guess maybe that's on purpose because even smart guys are hormone monsters? I'm not going to even dispute that point because it's probably right, but it makes for an awful protagonist.

Why am I talking about Jack anyway when you might be stuck on the first part where I said that Alex is a murderer? See, her older sister Anna was horribly tortured and murdered by a man in their town who got off on a technicality who in turn ends up dead after himself being tortured. We learn this in the first chapter, by the way, so it's not a spoiler. Alex isn't a sociopath; perhaps she is too empathetic. But she knows that there is something wrong with her. 
The books didn't help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own.
I am vengeance.
She and Peekay meet while volunteering at the animal shelter, and in spite of Alex's persistent avoidance of any human intimacy, they become friends. Peekay is going through a breakup and is in a bit of a self-destructive spiral of drinking and dangerous behavior, and Alex's years of quiet analysis of the people around her give her unique perspectives on what's going on. Some terrible things happen and Alex is uniquely capable of dealing with them.
I am a wolf that my sister kept in a cage, until her hand was removed. I have been out, curious as I wake up from a lethargic solitude, self-enforced because I know I don’t belong here. It’s not safe for me to be out, but they rattled my cage. First Claire and then Jack. And now I’m awake, deviating from the paths I created in order to remain stable. I’m out, I’m awake, and afraid I won’t be easily put back.
This is all amazing and fascinating. The two girls' reaction to the testosterone in and out of their school swings between bemusement and anger. A boy tries to pretend-kiss Alex and she reveals her martial arts skills brutally. The school hottie "steals" Peekay's boyfriend and Peekay blames her alone. Alex isn't having it. "She likes boys," she says. "and she can get them. You were hurt by that, but it wasn’t Branley who hurt you. It was Adam."

Alex is deep and self-aware, but acts on instinct, the results of which are sometimes gruesome. "Some might think me too harsh," she thinks. "But some men should be marked. I’m fit for that task." Peekay is a messed-up mix of being raised next to the neighborhood church, but McGinnis avoids the cliche of the overbearing religious parents and makes her mom and dad amazing and loving and understanding. 
If either one of you is ever in a situation you’re not entirely comfortable with—call me. I don’t care what time it is. I don’t care who is there or what is going on. You call me and I will come get you.
Compared to these complex and interesting characters, Jack feels empty and boring. I can't tell if he was inserted to bring romance to the book and maybe attract a larger audience, but I'd have a hard time pointing out any character growth in him. If he was supposed to be a male presence who learned from Alex about how it is being a girl where every boy surrounding her seemed intent on either drawing penises on her locker or sending her pictures of one, I don't think he ever made that step. 
But boys will be boys, our favorite phrase that excuses so many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is women, said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.
 Sometimes the "I am vengeance" thing can get played up a little too hard, but there is certainly a satisfaction to seeing the boys and men who manage to parade around the world with no regard for their impact getting comeuppance from a slight, yet very powerful young woman. And thankfully McGinnis didn't just write a book of revenge fantasy. While the local police force seems completely oblivious to almost anything and the ancillary kids seem unable to make some pretty basic connections, there are real emotional consequences.

The byline that interested me in this book was something like, "If Veronica Mars is the Phillip Marlowe of teen girls, Alex is the Dexter." In reality it is both more and less than that. More in the deep exploration of characters, less in the gleeful wallowing in the details of murder. In both cases, I think it's for the better. There's a lot of very good stuff here, I just wish I liked it more.

Similar to Bad Romance, a book I wrote about a while ago, The Female of the Species is very frank about underage sex, drinking, and language, and is aimed at older teens. It would easily get an R rating if it were a movie. And just like the former book, it has ideas that should be read by both teen girls and boys. Unfortunately, I feel like by the time I think a teen is mature enough to handle it, they've probably already been exposed to much of what is in these pages. I don't begrudge either author's choices, since I think the way they frankly handle these situations without being preachy probably means more teens will read it, but if you're aware of a book that handles these topics in a way that's more appropriate for, say, my 11-year old daughter, I'd love to hear about it.