Camille Preaker, journalist to a small Chicago newspaper, recently out of a mental institution after an in-patient stay to address her long-standing inclination to cut words into her body, has been asked by her boss to go to her hometown. Two little girls have been found murdered–with their teeth pulled out. Camille is not inclined to go home. She’s barely spoken to her distant, southern belle mother since moving out years ago and hardly knows her half-sister, 13-year-old Amma. But home she goes, staying with her mother, step-father, and half-sister to save money, drinking to cope as her demons haunt her, and investigating the murders that have shaken the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri.
This book hit my radar around the time there were all those articles judging Gillian Flynn for writing female characters who are bad/evil. I immediately was supportive of Gillian Flynn (bad women exist, hello) and interested in more of her writing. I started with Gone Girl so I could read it before seeing the movie, but Sharp Objects has been in my sightlines for a long time. The mere idea of an adult self-injurer going to her hometown and facing her demons was something I would want to read even without knowing how much I enjoy Gillian Flynn’s work. What I found was a tightly-written, fast-paced mystery with multiple complex characters and simultaneously breath-taking and heart-breaking lead.
I thought through most of the book that I knew the solution to the mystery. Whodunit. That didn’t bother me. I liked everything leading up to what I thought was going to be the ultimate reveal. The plot twists, though, surprising myself and characters in the book. While part of me likes the twist, part of me felt it was more cliche than the original ending that I thought I was getting. Ultimately, while I didn’t necessarily find the resolution satisfying, I did find it surprising and something to chew on. It will stick with me in a I’m thinking about it way like eating something unusual you’re not sure if you liked, rather than in an I remember feeling so pleasantly satisfied way, like how you might look back on Thanksgiving dinner.
The pacing in the book is superb. I read it in audiobook format, and I found myself using time to listen to it as rewards for accomplishing other things. I listened to it every chance I had because the pacing was so spot on. It never felt too quick-moving or too slow. Every scene felt like it had a reason for being there and kept me on the edge of my seat.
There is a lot of mental illness represented in this book, and that is wrapped up in the characters. I’ll talk first about the spoiler-free mental illnesses.
Camille is a self-injurer who has had a stay in a mental hospital where her roommate managed to commit suicide. Camille never names more of a diagnosis the doctors gave her than self-injurer. However, much of her behavior, including her self-injury, points to PTSD from her childhood. This includes the foreboding feeling she gets when returning to her hometown. How she feels driven to drink herself numb for dealing with certain triggering situations. Her impulse to inflict hurt on herself, etc… All of that said, the representation of Camille as a cutter is superb. This is an adult woman who still struggles with the impulse to cut. Who talks about how most people think of it as an adolescent problem. Camille manages to describe her urges to cut, what drives her to cut, without ever actually definitively saying what causes it. And this is great because we don’t actually know. Camille is nuanced. She is a woman who used to (still wants to) cut herself but that is not, not by a long-shot, all she is.
The book also secondarily depicts alcoholism and drunkenness as a self-medication technique. Camille drinks as a lesser evil compared to cutting when she needs to relieve her stress and discomfort from dealing with terrible situations. It shows how alcohol and cutting both can end up being used as coping mechanisms when no healthier ones are learned or taught. It also shows how stressors can impact sobriety and health.
Despite being both a self-injurer in recovery and a woman who abuses alcohol, Camille is depicted as a heroine. Her investigative journalism helps break the case open. She exhibits care and concern for her half-sister and loyalty to her boss and career. She is ultimately depicted as resilient in spite of her struggles, and I loved seeing that.
If you are interested in reading about other depictions of mental illness in the book, they are in the spoiler section below.
It is ultimately revealed that Adora, Camille’s mother, suffers from Munchausen by Proxy (MBP). This MBP is what ultimately killed Camille’s other little sister, Marion. Camille escaped this same fate because her mother didn’t love her and thus also didn’t really enjoy caring for her or garnering attention through her in this way. What Adora does is unforgivable and certainly causes a visceral reaction in the reader. However, there are scenes that discuss things such as how Adora’s mother didn’t love her. The implication is that some of the mental illness in the family is learned or a reaction to poor environment. It manages to keep Adora human rather than monstrous.
Similarly, it is ultimately learned that Amma is a sociopath. Camille seems to be uncertain if this is just Amma’s nature or a reaction to Adora’s “mothering” or some combination of the two. I feel that not enough time is given to analyzing Amma, once Camille learns her true nature. This depiction, compared to the others in the book, is just much flatter due to the lesser amount of time Camille and other characters spend pondering Amma.
The book ends with Camille wondering if she is able to love in a healthy way or if she’s doomed to repeat her mother’s unhealthy, hurtful mothering. Essentially, she wonders if MBP is inherited or if she can escape that. Some time is spent discussing what made Camille more resilient than either of her sisters. I think this is some of the more valuable portion of the book, as it really highlights the nuances of some of the things we still just don’t have a solid answer to about mental illness. What makes some people more resilient, more able to overcome bad childhoods and genetic tendencies than others? What makes some people better able to cope with a mental illness than others? They are important questions, and I like that they are addressed.
There are some scenes that will bother some readers. While rape is never depicted, it is discussed, as well as the idea of what counts as rape, with one female character arguing that a woman who is intoxicated is still responsible for any sexual activity that occurs. The character saying this was a victim of rape while intoxicated herself, so readers should bare in mind that this reframing of a rape as not a rape is very normal for rape victims who have not fully addressed the rape yet. Additionally, at one point one character has consensual sex with a character who has just barely turned 18. Also an adult partakes of illegal drugs and alcohol with characters who are extremely underage. All of these scenes work within the book and are necessary for the plot, however.
Overall, this is a fast-paced mystery with a strong yet flawed female lead and an engaging and thought-provoking plot that presents many different nuances of mental illness. Recommended to those looking for a fast-moving book with a unique depiction of self-injury who do not mind the violence or gray moral areas innate in a mystery revolving around serial killing.
4 out of 5 stars
Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen. And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.
I was intrigued by the concept of this book. Yes, it’s another abduction story, but wrapping it in the therapy sessions after she escapes was an idea I had not seen before. So when I saw this on sale for the kindle, I snatched it up. I’m glad I did, because this is a surprisingly edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Stevens deals with the potential issue of back-and-forth with the therapist by having Annie say in her first session that in order to feel safe talking about what happened to her, she needs the therapist to say very little back to her. It is acknowledged that the therapist says some things to Annie, but it appears that she waits to talk until the end of the session when Annie is done talking. What the therapist says isn’t recorded but Annie does sometimes respond to what she suggested in later sessions. This set-up has the potential to be clunky, but Stevens handled it quite eloquently. It always reads smoothly.
The plot itself starts out as a basic abducted/escaped one, with most of the thriller aspects of the first half of the book coming from slowly finding out everything that happened to Annie when she was abducted. The second half is where the plot really blew me away, though. The investigation into her kidnapping turns extremely exciting and terrifying. I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say that I wasn’t expecting most of the thrills to come from the investigation after the kidnapping and yet they did.
Annie is well-developed. Her PTSD is written with a deep understanding of it. For instance, she both needs human connection and is (understandably) terrified of it, so she pushes people away. Stevens shows Annie’s PTSD in every way, from how she talks to her therapist to how she behaves now to subtle comparisons to how she used to be before she was traumatized.
Other characters are well-rounded enough to seem like real people, including her abductor, yet it also never seems like Annie is describing them with more information than she would logically have.
I do want to take just a moment to let potential readers know that there are graphic, realistic descriptions of rape. Similarly, the end of the book may be triggering for some. I cannot say why without revealing what happens but suffice to say that if triggers are an issue for you in your recovery from trauma, you may want to wait until you are further along in your recovery and feel strong enough to handle potentially upsetting realistic descriptions of trauma.
Overall, this is a strong thriller with a creative story-telling structure. Those who enjoy abduction themed thrillers will find this one unique enough to keep them on the edge of their seat. Those with an interest in PTSD depicted in literature will find this one quite realistic and appreciate the inclusion of therapy sessions in the presentation.
5 out of 5 stars
As you all know, the one reading challenge I host is the Mental Illlness Advocacy (MIA) Reading Challenge. Since we’re into the last week of the year, I’d like to post the 2012 wrap-up.
This year, I read 8 books that count for the challenge, successfully achieving the Aware level.
The books I read and reviewed for the challenge, along with what mental illness they covered, in 2012 were:
- The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
4 out of 5 stars
- The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
4 out of 5 stars
- Barefoot Season by Susan Mallery
4 out of 5 stars
- Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia by Megan Warin
4 out of 5 stars
- A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
4 out of 5 stars
- Haunted by Glen Cadigan
3 out of 5 stars
- January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield
4 out of 5 stars
- Germline by T. C. McCarthy
4 out of 5 stars
The books I read covered genres from scifi to thriller to memoir to academic nonfiction to historic fiction. I’m also a bit surprised to note in retrospect that all but one of these books received four stars from me. Clearly the books I chose to read for the challenge were almost entirely a good match for me. It’s no surprise to me that I enjoy running this challenge so much then. 🙂
The most unique book for the challenge was The Sparrow. The scifi plot of first contact with aliens was a very unique wrapping for a book dealing so strongly with mental illness. Most challenging was Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia, which was my first foray into university-level Anthropology. Something I’d like to see more of is more memoirs by parents of children with a mental illness, like January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her. That was an interesting, new perspective for me. I think I’d also like to read more schizophrenia books next year, as well as books that challenge the gender norms perceived of in certain mental illnesses, such as the idea that eating disorders are female or that alcoholism is male.
If you participated in the challenge this year, please feel free to either comment with your list of reads or a link to a wrap-up post. I’d love to see what we all successfully read this year!
And if the MIA Reading Challenge sounds like a good match for you, head on over to the challenge’s main page to sign up for the 2013 iteration!
Mark is an Iraq War vet with PTSD, so he counts himself lucky when a Gulf War vet gives him the chance to be a security guard at an office tower. Unfortunately, he’s the night watchman, and he doesn’t seem to be alone in the tower.
This is a unique, sympathetic story idea that is not as well-executed as it deserves.
Mark is ultimately a well-rounded character, but it takes too long to get to know him in this novella. Since it is in first-person narrative, he has the option of holding off on telling us about his PTSD symptoms and how they affect him. While a soldier would certainly most likely be more stoic in a traditionally masculine way, it gets in the way of the reader understanding where Mark is coming from and empathizing with him. He *tells* us that his PTSD makes his life difficult, but we don’t really ever see it.
Because this is a first person novella, this problem with the characterization gets in the way of the strengths of the scifi/fantasy plot, which is honestly fairly unique. I was glad I got to the end and saw the surprise reveal, but I certainly wasn’t expecting such a good twist from the rest of the book.
Essentially, the scifi/fantasy element of the book is strong, but the characterization at the center of the first person narrative is weak. Although Mark is a soldier, Cadigan shouldn’t be afraid to let us see the vulnerability of his PTSD. Recommended to fans of a unique ghost story looking for a quick read.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Michelle ran away from mistakes made at home to the army, and now she’s coming home from three tours of duty to Blackberry Island in the Pacific Northwest. Her father abandoned the family when she was a teenager, but left his historic inn in trust to her. Her mother was running it until she died, and now Michelle is back to reclaim her inheritance. Only it seems that her mother may have not so much been running the inn as running it into the ground. Meanwhile, Michelle’s once best friend, Carly, thought she was working toward owning part of the inn only to be side-swiped by the fact that Michelle’s mother lied to her….not to mention the bad blood between her and Michelle. It’s a lot for anyone to deal with, but toss in Michelle’s PTSD and Carly’s single motherhood, and it seems impossible for either of them to ever truly get their lives in order.
I am not usually a chick lit person, but this one slipped in under my radar thanks to Harlequin’s new MIRA line (which is chick lit with some sex scenes). I’m glad it did, because I found the story relatable, heart-warming, and a welcome escape.
The plot is complex, which I think is evident from my plot summary. There is a lot going on. But it never feels forced or like too much. It simply feels like real life. Michelle and Carly both have a *lot* of shit to deal with and watching them deal with it imperfectly but understandably is an enjoyable experience.
Although both Michelle and Carly have their own romance plot lines, the story is really about healing their broken friendship, as well as their wounds from their individual painful pasts. I enjoyed this because the story shows healing happening alongside real life. Too often books either ignore the tough things or focus on them to the exclusion of real life.
Of course, being the mental illness advocate that I am, I was incredibly pleased to see Michelle’s PTSD come up and be dealt with in such a true to life manner. Michelle at first is mentally wounded and won’t truly admit it.
While she wasn’t a big believer in PTSD, she’d been told she suffered from it. So she’d listened to the counselors when they’d talked about avoiding stress and staying rested and eating well. (location 207)
Perhaps the most true-to-life part of the whole book is that Michelle takes a while to admit that she is not ok, even while those around her who love her are expressing their concerns to her. A lot of people have difficulty acknowledging a problem, particularly if they view themselves as strong and independent. Seeing Michelle realize that reaching out for help is stronger than suffering alone is honestly the best part of the whole book.
Although we do have a couple of sex scenes, I did feel that the romance was a bit….quick and forced for both women. However, this is the first book in a series, so perhaps their romantic relationships will be explored more in future books.
I also have to say that the title makes zero sense to me. It brings to mind summer, but that’s about all the relation I can see between it and the story.
Overall, this is a piece of chick lit with an intelligent perspective on PTSD in female soldiers and a dash of romance. Recommended to fans of the genre as well as those who enjoy a contemporary tale and want to dip their toe into the chick lit world.
4 out of 5 stars