December 2020 has been a descent into stress – it started with shopping, which was fun at first but ballooned into too much. My sunlight disappeared. The wedding plans of a friend has involved so much more drama than it should have. This book made it all a little better.
This wasn’t a book for me so much as it was an ~experience.~ While I didn’t love everything about it, I have not had this much fun reading a book in awhile. I tend to lean towards books that explore social ills in the form of fiction, and this did that a little too, but it was somehow lighter. It was realistic-ish while still being an escape. However, the more I thought about this book, the more I had to knock off stars for issues that were just too glaring. Here’s how this went from a 5-star read to 3, even though I still thoroughly enjoyed reading this.
Patricia Campbell had always planned for a big life, but after giving up her career as a nurse to marry an ambitious doctor and become a mother, Patricia’s life has never felt smaller. The days are long, her kids are ungrateful, her husband is distant, and her to-do list is never really done. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a group of Charleston mothers united only by their love for true-crime and suspenseful fiction. In these meetings, they’re more likely to discuss the FBI’s recent siege of Waco as much as the ups and downs of marriage and motherhood.
But when an artistic and sensitive stranger moves into the neighborhood, the book club’s meetings turn into speculation about the newcomer. Patricia is initially attracted to him, but when some local children go missing, she starts to suspect the newcomer is involved. She begins her own investigation, assuming that he’s a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. What she uncovers is far more terrifying, and soon she–and her book club–are the only people standing between the monster they’ve invited into their homes and their unsuspecting community.Synopsis from Goodreads
I loved everything about the first half of this book. It hooked me from the introduction, which has never happened before. But Hendrix kind of made the intro a sort of prologue, and it really drew me in. Patricia is your typical bored but harried housewife looking for something more, and I don’t know what it is about that trope but I love it. The 90s world-building was really nice, and it took me a minute to figure out who was who among her friends, but it was a strong cast of characters. The setting was evocative, too. By turns disgusting and excruciatingly normal, the sense of dread that builds throughout the first half of the book was delicious. Was it a little over the top? Maybe, but somehow it worked.
About halfway through the book, there’s a three-year time jump. In a multigenerational family saga, that wouldn’t bother me, but here it did, and after the jump was where the book became a 4-star read for me rather than 5. The suspense buildup from the first half felt like it was halted, and it made the pacing feel off. It felt a little more rushed than the first half, especially with regards to character development (although the mother-in-law storyline developed a bit more, and I enjoyed that piece). The wacky suspense and monster-horror elements came back in full force, so it was still a satisfying second half in that arena. The trapped-in-a-roach-infested-attic scene was especially vivid.
However. One glaring issue was the obvious use of the “magic black woman savior” trope in the character of Mrs. Greene. Mrs. Greene takes care of Patricia’s mother-in-law, who has dementia. Throughout the book, she mostly serves as a vessel for strange things that happen to Patricia and her family, and in the end plays a HUGE part in saving the book club from the neighbor. This really makes no sense, as she goes against her own values that she’s already stated to Patricia, after Patricia failed to keep her promise to Mrs. Greene three years prior. Her supposed change of heart near the end of the book wasn’t believable to me, and it felt too convenient to not call it the racist trope that it is.
There was also the whole plot around the disappearing black children. Mrs. Greene is initially the one who tells Patricia that something was out there stealing black children – and only black children – from Mrs. Greene’s part of town. They both acknowledge that the reason the perpetrator can get away with this is because no one in power cares about the black community. This is the promise that Patricia breaks – she does not kick up a fuss to get help, even though they both knew that people would listen to a white woman in the “good” part of town. I didn’t hate this as a plot point – it was realistic and frank about acknowledging inequality, and then struggling to act on that. But after the three year jump, the fate of the children in Mrs. Greene’s community is barely mentioned. There’s a paragraph or two of conversation, but it’s not a plot point anymore. Now the focus is solely on Patricia and her family, and the fact that the monster might be after her own children now. It felt too ironic to openly state that no white person in town cared about the black children, and then just stop talking about them.
I realize this is a highly fantastical horror novel, and everything in it is not meant to be taken seriously. It’s the kind of book you read for fun. But I think there were some better storytelling options here Hendrix could have taken to avoid both these issues. These were what ultimately brought the book down to a final rating of 3 stars.
I also wish we had gotten a little more detail about what happened to Patricia’s friends and family in the end. However, even with this issues, this was still a fun read and I’d still recommend it – even just to see what others think about the second half. I’m also curious whether the same issues are present in Hendrix’s other work. If you’ve read this, let me know what you think!