This crime novel that goes back and forth between 1982 and the present day begins with the murder of Emily Vaughn, two weeks shy of 18, and seven months pregnant. Emily didn’t know who impregnated her but she knew when it happened: she had been partying with her high school clique, and she had taken LSD. She had few memories of what happened that night. The murder remained another mystery; it was never solved.
Forty years later, the case was taken up again by Andrea Oliver, 33, who was a new US Marshal. Andrea’s mother Laura had joined a violent cult at the age of 21 run by a man who became Andrea’s father, Nick Harp. Nick was now in prison, with another 15 years left on his 48-year sentence, but he was up for parole. Before her father was known as Nick Harp, he went by his original name, Clayton Morrow, and was a member of the small clique to which Emily belonged.
Laura’s older brother, US Senator Jasper Queller, arranged for Andrea to get sent to the town of Longbill Beach, Delaware to guard a judge receiving death threats. The judge, Esther, was Emily’s mother. Jasper wanted Andrea on the scene to see if she could, in addition to her marshal duties, nail Clayton/Nick for Emily’s murder, so that Nick would not get out on parole.
For the assignment, Andrea was paired with a more experienced marshal, Leonard Bible. Together they explored possible suspects for the threats to Judge Vaughn, suspects who included the other surviving members of the clique besides Andrea’s father: Bernard “Nardo” Fontaine, Erica “Ricky” Blakely, and Dean Wexler, a former teacher at the high school who had hung out with the clique and who now ran a cult of his own, much like Nick’s. This new cult presented its own problems.
Wexler, along with Nardo, operated a “hippie farm” using “volunteer” labor of young women who looked like they were in an anorexia treatment facility (without, albeit, any treatment). The mother of one of the women tried to rescue her daughter, maintaining that Nardo, who did the recruiting for “volunteers,” had a screening process to select vulnerable women. Wexler and Nardo, equating thinness of women with desirability, benefitted from convincing the girls they should become anorexic, which not only made them more attractive to the men, but more malleable and compliant. Complicating matters, Wexler had a team of lawyers to get him out of any difficulties, and the most the mother achieved was to be served with a restraining order.
As readers are taken back and forth through time, they learn about the various expressions of misogynist attitudes of the clique in the past as well as the present, and about how they were manifested in the treatment of Emily, both in terms of impregnating her and her treatment by everyone afterwards. As one of Emily’s non-clique friends described the rape:
“Emily was senseless when she was raped. . . It’s almost a form of necrophilia, isn’t it? The woman has no idea what the man is doing. She’s completely helpless the entire time. She can’t tell him to stop or even tell him to keep going if it feels good. She’s an inanimate series of holes.”
Or, as the rapist claimed when they finally got a confession: “What I did was fill every single hole that young lady had with my cock. . . She was gagging for it. She couldn’t get enough.”
The women of Emily’s time were socialized in a number of ways that enabled the exploitation to continue. They had it drummed into their heads that they should be as slender as possible and received constant feedback on their weight, including when Emily got pregnant, which rendered her “repugnant” according to the boys. Emily’s supposed best friend saw her not as an ally but as an enemy in the competition for men. Emily’s mother told her that women were not allowed to break certain rules, especially with regard to having sex, and if they did, they had to suffer the (life-ruining) consequences. (Males of course not only faced no such consequences, but were free to be as hypocritical about the process as they wanted to be.) Emily’s father was a brute who reinforced all these lessons Emily got by conditioning her to expect mistreatment.
The story builds to a tense and danger-filled denouement, and Andrea is eventually able to figure out what happened, after a series of shocking twists and revelations. The ending is (unfortunately) realistic, with the outrageous behavior of surviving characters continuing to have deleterious repercussions.
Evaluation: Slaughter has written a number of fictionalized exposés about how men can be vicious – on all levels – to women. As upsetting as her books can be, they are always worthwhile to read because of the well-constructed and page-turning stories that convey knowledge we should all have, and the understanding to deal with it compassionately. This novel is excellent.
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2022
Wow. That’s a lot. This is also why I generally stick to middle grade literature. Don’t get the literary bends going back and forth from picture books to murder mysteries!
I like Karen Slaughter’s books. Thank you for this review.