“What else bad can happen?”
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape, torture, child abuse, and general violence.)
To say that life hasn’t been easy for the Campbell sisters is an understatement of epic proportions. When they were younger, their mother – who loved them dearly but wasn’t always able to put enough food on the table – was killed, hit head-on by a hay truck. Their already unstable father went off the rails and on a bender, effectively abandoning them to the state. The three were swiftly separated, placed into different foster homes, each one worse than the next. (Courtney’s foster dad sexually harassed her, and his jealous wife beat her in retaliation; Dani effectively became a slave laborer.)
After Dad got his shit together, Dani, Courtney, and Jess went to live with him on a remote ranch near the Canadian border. There, the girls help work off their rent by performing manual labor – all while trying their best to avoid Dad’s fists. He’s a violent drunk, and without Mom around to mediate, the abuse has only escalated. Luckily, he’s gone three weeks out of every month, working on an oil field in Alberta.
One night he returns from camp, drunk and in a mood. A friend informed him that his middle daughter Courtney is “running around” with a married man nearly twice her age. He confronts her, and before you can say “slut shaming” or “victim blaming,” things go sideways.
With the police and nosy neighbors sniffing around, the girls decide to go on the run. Naturally, their escape vehicle breaks down, stranding them in the middle of nowhere. With few options, they accept help from a couple of sketchy older guys. A bunch of horrible stuff happens and, after five days in hell, the girls manage to escape. With the help of a pair of ex-cons – rehabilitated and keen on paying it forward – the sisters make it into Vancouver, where they assume new identities and try to get on with their lives.
Fast-forward seventeen years. Courtney – who’s had the most trouble coming to terms with what happened – suddenly disappears, forcing Jess and Dani to revisit the horrors they faced in Cold Creek.
Confession time: I waffled on this one for weeks before requesting a copy on NetGalley. On the one hand: rape like whoah. On the other: a solid Goodreads rating, and I do enjoy a good rape revenge story – if it’s done right (see, e.g., Stephen King’s Big Driver). I finally decided to go for it, thinking that I could skip through the rape scenes – or abandon the story altogether – if needed.
While the rape scenes aren’t needlessly graphic – Stevens often cuts away as one or more girls is led out of the room, resuming the narration minutes or hours later, when she’s returned to her sisters, bruised and bloodied – at the end of the day the whole thing still feels a little icky and exploitative. This is due in no small part to the story’s climax, which is largely lacking in emotional catharsis.
I’d really hoped – and half expected – the “girls” (now women) to go on a Kill Bill -style Roaring Rampage of Revenge; doubly so when it’s revealed that the ex-con who takes them in and ultimately adopts them as family is a) a boxer b) who owns his own gym c) catered to troubled teens and d) teaches them self-defense. (Dani even goes on to become a trainer herself.) Alas, the ending isn’t nearly as satisfying as we – and the sisters – deserve. A little more believable, maybe, but let’s face it: no one’s reading this novel for the realism. As Jem and The Holograms might say, it’s truly outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous.
Even so, Those Girls is a weirdly compulsive read. I polished 90% of it off in one afternoon and evening – hours faster than the estimated reading time provided by my Kindle, which is unheard of. (I tend to putter.) Stevens has got the thriller thing down: the action, the pacing, the suspense, the character development even – it’s all aces.
A little more pushback on the rape culture stuff (the girls blame themselves in various ways for their victimization; while this is indeed realistic, a counter-voice would be nice) and a more satisfying ending, and this might be a 4-star dealio.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: All the girls are traumatized from their experiences in Cold Creek, as well as the abuse the suffered at the hands of their father and foster parents. They suffer from PTSD, and Courtney struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.
Racially, this is a very white book; the only POC to be seen is Tina, Skylar’s Asian counselor, who’s mentioned in passing once.
Animal-friendly elements: Jess is a pescetarian: she doesn’t like eating deers, cows, or other animals she’s worked with or witnessed on the ranch, but does go fishing/eat fishes. (“I preferred working with the animals. Spring was my favorite, all the babies being born, but I refused to eat the meat, which made Dad furious. I took a few beatings for that.”)