This review will go into great detail. If you're interested in reading this book and being surprised by plot developments, you shouldn't read this.
The novel starts with a killer premise – literally. Kippy Bushman, a sixteen-year-old who lives in a tiny town in Wisconsin, is in shock. Her best friend Ruth has just been murdered. And it happened when Ruth was on her way over to Kippy's house for a sleepover. Although Ruth's body was found hanging from a tree, we know this was a murder rather than suicide. Ruth's mouth was sewn shut with red thread after her mouth was stuffed full of straw.
Ruth didn't have a car, so Kippy keeps thinking about how she should have given Ruth a ride over. She obsesses over how close Ruth came to reaching Kippy's house safely – "They discovered her less than two hundred yards away from our back door. She almost made it." But Kippy also finds herself feeling annoyed at Ruth for not being with her when she's supposed to be. She feels "a sort of vague annoyance, like Ruth has gone somewhere and not invited me."
Ruth's last name is Fried, pronounced "freed." People were always calling her "Ruth Fried, like a fried egg.""Do you think it would help if I put some of those pronunciation symbols next to my name in the yearbook?" she asked me once. "I'm yearbook vice president, so I could probably totally do that – Wait, sorry, does it sound like I'm bragging?"
"I think you're very conservative with your power," I told her honestly.
We're given a sense of Kippy's relationship with Ruth in such flashbacks. We're also told that neither of them are thrilled to live in their tiny Wisconsin town:Ruth was the only person I ever knew who wanted to be somewhere else as much as I did. The only one who got what I meant when I said, "Friendship as in you and me is great, but Friendship, Wisconsin, sometimes feels like a bad dream that's too boring to be called a nightmare."
Kippy has been asked to deliver Ruth's eulogy by Ruth's mother, who also gives Kippy Ruth's diary. This isn't so much a gift as another writing assignment. Mrs. Fried wants Kippy to "redact the sex parts."
Kippy obediently begins to read the journal. Rather than looking for sexy-time entries, she searches for her own name. Ruth's handwriting is terrible. Fortunately, capital K's are distinctive, so she finds herself relatively easily.Ruth here. Kippy is so pathetic it makes me nauseous. She just told me that sometimes she gets lonely before bed and talks out loud to me like I'm there, like a fucking prayer, like I'm some god or something!!! If we lived anywhere else, like any place remotely interesting, I'd have way more options, and she and I wouldn't even know each other.
Stunned, Kippy reads more about herself:Today I told Kippy to get a hobby so it's not so obvious she's crushing on me.
Kippy also learns that Ruth has been making time with someone other than her boyfriend Colt. She's also had a sexual relationship with local lawyer Jim Steele, a.k.a. Uncle Jimmy.
I assume this is what the reviewer Blythe Harris was referring to when she mentioned this book having statutory rape. But Ruth is 18. It's still completely disgusting for a fifty-year-old man to have sex with her, but sadly it isn't illegal.
Anyway. Kippy has lost her best friend twice in the same week: first to a murderer, then to the truth.
So when Ruth's older brother Davey insists that Colt couldn't possibly be the murderer, Kippy is skeptical. Colt is a jerk – everyone knows that. He's the gorgeous football player who can do no wrong, so when he does
wrong he doesn't get in trouble for it. He smashes mailboxes for fun. Which is better than putting a dead skunk in one, which he also does. He defaces the homes of girls who say no to him. He starts a town-wide botulism scare. Suffice to say, he's bad news. So, football hero or no, people are willing enough to turn on him when he's arrested for Ruth's murder.
Davey insists Colt couldn't have done it, and Kippy is swayed by his arguments. He's older and much more intelligent than Kippy, but she's the one who figures out who really committed the murder. In the process, she continues to decipher Ruth's diary. She learns a lot about herself and her best friend, who – hey! – turns out to have been pretty fond of Kippy after all.
We learn a lot about Kippy, too. How for a long time she can't stop feeling guilty about Ruth's death:What if I'd called earlier and Ruth was still alive? And then something even more terrifying hits: What if I keep asking myself that question for the rest of my life?
We learn that her mother died years ago, and that before the brain cancer killed her, it destroyed her mind and made her see terrifying things that weren't there:I kept trying to see her monsters out of sympathy. I imagined them living in a creepy castle surrounded by storm clouds, and visiting our house in shifts. I spun my brain creating them, squinting until bright spots formed behind my eyelids and I could carve out creatures with the stardust. I'd pretend so hard that they were real – mostly to pretend she wasn't crazy, which she was.
Pretty good stuff, that.
So why didn't this book work for me?
A lot of reasons, unfortunately.1. The awkward structure.
The first bit of the book is a third-person omniscient prologue – a conversation between a police officer and a woman he's trying to calm down so she can tell him what the matter is. Initially, I found this short prologue a little annoying because of all the "This is Wisconsin, don'tcha know" subtlety. Later I found them baffling. Why are they here? Who wrote them?
Yes, I know Hale did. What I mean is: The rest of the book is Kippy's first-person present-tense narration of events, or else writing she could get her hands on: a newspaper article, some Facebook postings, and Ruth's diary entries. So this book exists either as a story Kippy is supposed to have written, or a peek into Kippy's head.
Where does that initial narrative fit into either of those scenarios? For that matter, how are we seeing the sheriff's logbook later on?
Also, why have this material? It's not necessary to the storytelling. And even with the bits of Ruth's diary we're allowed to see, there's not enough falling into third-person to make it feel like an integral part of the storytelling. When the narrative does suddenly swing into third-person narrative, it's jolting.2. Ick.
There was a lot of ick in this novel. The details of Ruth's murder were the least of my problems in this respect, even after I learned she'd been cut open and disemboweled.
I've never liked disgusting details, even as a kid. But I can deal. Especially if the story is compelling.
So I gritted my teeth and hung in there with all the details of deer hunting and gutting. I was all right when Kippy described being left alone with her mother's ashes and getting caught "elbow deep in remains." I was less than thrilled by the details of Kippy's friend Ralph's parents being killed when they hit a ten-point buck on the highway and were gored by its antlers. And then, yay! Same page, here's a description of Kippy being in the car with Ralph and hitting a deer. The blood, the sound of a dear screaming, the importance of aiming for the head when you shoot a deer – what fun.
It was one too many descriptions of human excretions that did me in so far as reading this at the table was concerned. And that's where I do a lot of my reading.
So far, these are minor quibbles. Let's get to a serious problem with the story.3. How old did you say you are, dear?
The extended quotes I offered are from early in the book. In these, Kippy sounds like what she is: a sixteen-year-old girl.
Very soon, however, this book starts to feel as if it were written by a middle-grade student. There's a difference between being a little naïve and sounding eleven years old:I thought love meant wanting all the time for somebody to be alive – I mean it's not like if you don't love someone, you want them to be dead, or anything. But if you've chosen somebody, like really picked them out, then death is kind of where you draw the line, right?
This is supposed to have been written by a college-bound sixteen-year-old. I guess it's supposed to be cute and artless, but it's rather disconcerting to have an alleged teenager dealing with some very dark doings and sounding like an anxious and whiny pre-teen. This gets creepy when she and Davey, who's 21, start kissing.4. Talking funny = characterization.
There's very little in the way of characterization in this book. We're told Kippy's dad is an old-fashioned Wisconsin Republican; but he never does anything conservative. On the other hand, he says things like "Is this a female body-image thing?" and "Everything you're feeling is valid," because he's a "trained psychologist."
Characters in this book have verbal tics rather than personalities. If you find the writing charming, this won't bother you. I was uncharmed.5. You did what?
Kippy has an important "actually, come to think of it" moment after the announcement that Colt's been arrested for Ruth's murder. She's been thinking about Colt's past misbehaviors, and how he smashed her family's mailbox twice: The more I think about it, destroying my mailbox wasn't the first time Colt targeted my house.
Kippy recalls that Colt once graffitied her home with a picture of a rattle and the words "MA-MA!" after her mother died. At the time, she told Ruth, "Only a psycho makes fun of someone for not having a mom." Later, when Ruth starts dating Colt, Kippy goes ballistic and asks what Ruth thinks she's doing, dating a guy who would do something like that to anyone, let alone Ruth's best friend.
Oh, wait. No. Kippy has no reaction at all.
Really? If your best friend
starts dating a guy who did something like that to you after your mother died, it's not on like Donkey Kong?
Later, Kippy's cell phone rings. She looks down to see who it is. Ruth cell calling...
Pretend this is you. You just looked down to see that you're getting a call from your dead friend's phone. Your recently murdered
dead friend. What's your reaction?
I asked several people, and they all gave me the same answer: they'd feel freaked out because that's really creepy, and then they'd wonder who the heck had their friend's phone.
Well, that's what Kippy does, too!
Oh, wait. It isn't. Instead, Kippy gets excited because this means Ruth is alive. It's all been a big mistake! The newspaper article, the arrest of the suspected murderer, Ruth's parents sitting shiva, the funeral
, the eulogy, the diary – all just some colossal mix-up!
No. Just no. I don't care how quirky you are. (More about the quirky in a minute.) That's so unrealistic, it yanked me right out of the story.
That kind of unbelievable action/reaction kept happening; and although I finished the book, it was a chore rather than a pleasure long before I finally reached the end.6. Yep. Slut-shaming.
Lisa Staake, the daughter of the local sheriff, is described by the narrator as being "like some kind of blonde rabbit in heat." Later, she says to the sheriff, "Your daughter's a hoochie mama." Lovely.
If there can be a more generalized sense of slut-shaming, Kippy is the innocent girl in the horror movie who's completely nonsexual and survives, and Ruth is the one who enjoys sex and is killed. These do not seem unrelated. We keep getting flashbacks to conversations between Ruth and Kippy in which Ruth accuses Kippy of being jealous that Ruth has a boyfriend, or says they'll have to work on getting Kippy a boyfriend, or teasing her about being a virgin. It feels like Halloween
all over again – thank goodness the innocent heroine keeps her pants on! That's how a girl stays alive in this big bad world, people!
And then there's Libby Quinn, a minor character who has "gigantic boobs." These seem to be her defining characteristic. Okay, her second defining characteristic. She has large breasts and she's a mean girl. Those two are inextricably linked in scene after scene, whether it's Libby pretending to be nice to Kippy at Ruth's funeral:She's about a head taller than me in her heels, and when she pulls me toward her I land face-first against her gigantic boobs.
Or Libby pretending to be concerned about Kippy in front of the school's guidance counselor:"You know exactly what I'm talking about." She shifts so that her boob is smushed against my shoulder and our thighs are touching all the way to the knee.
[Next page] "Libby, come on." I try to shrug her boob off me but it's too heavy.
[Page after that] Libby presses her boob harder into my arm.
Needless to say, Kippy is completely flat-chested and not only a virgin, but has "never experienced physical contact with a boy." Which I guess makes her as good as a girl can get. 7. The murderer
First I was annoyed because I guessed who did it early on. Then I was annoyed because the reason I guessed was that it's obvious that it couldn't have been a stranger, and it couldn't have been Kippy (though that would have been awesome). It wasn't Colt – that's why Kippy's doing all this investigating. And having it be the fifty-year-old guy Ruth was having the affair with didn't feel right, either.
So – who else hasn't the author mentioned in a really, really, really long time?
Last chance to be able to read the book yourself and be surprised by the ending.
It's Kippy's friend Ralph. And that ticks me off no end.
Because of course
it's Ralph! I mean, look at him! He's weird! He's a gamer! Those people who play those online shoot-'em-up games are just bad news!
Plus he has a lazy eye! So he's creepy-looking!Ralph gapes at me, and one of his eyes rolls slightly to the left.
And he's really intelligent:Before Ralph got so into video games, engineering programs and tech schools all over Wisconsin and even outside the state were sending him postcards to apply. But Ralph dragged his feet, and then Mr. and Mrs. Johnston died, and Ralph inherited the house, and suddenly he wouldn't code at all anymore.
When Kippy and her dad withdraw and behave in weird, sometimes destructive, antisocial ways after Kippy's mom dies, that's just how they grieve. When Ralph pulls inward and starts playing video games nonstop after both his parents die – and it's been less than a year since that horrible car accident – it's an early sign he's a psycho killer.
Plus – and I almost can't believe the author would plant such an obvious clue so early on in the book – not only does Ralph buy lots of "collectibles and weird figurines," many of these are based on Norse mythology.
Yes. Can you believe it? The guy might as well run around wearing a shirt that says "IF I DIDN'T KILL HER, I SURE WANTED TO. (P.S. I did kill her.)"
Because, DUH. Think about it. Who's totally famous for loving Norse mythology?
from J.R.R. Tolkien.
I'll give you a hint. His initials are ADOLF FREAKIN' HITLER.
Yes. The author has Ralph describe Kippy in Nazi-rific terms – very late in the book, and bear in mind he's never said anything like this before:Between her easy smile and Aryan features, she has an angelic quality.
what tips Kippy off.Ralph is racist...ish. All of his Thor dolls and Norse mythology – that's Nazi stuff, isn't it?
Um. I guess.
Other than the fact that I know plenty of gamer nerds who like Norse mythology. And non-gamers, thanks to the Thor movies.
The fact is, it's ridiculous and forced to have Ralph be the murderer. Really
forced. Remember Kippy's "Oh, hey, I totally just now remembered something that would have been really important to a real person" moment about Colt? 320 pages into a 380-page book, she has another delayed memory incident:He did kind of have a thing for Ruth. I hated her for thinking he was creepy. But now I remember how she was the only one he paused his video games for. Ruth even told me once that he was always staring at her, and that it made her uncomfortable. Only back then I figured she was just being full of herself.
Why? Why, when this is your best friend whom you love so much it's understandable she thinks you're "crushing on" her, would you brush something like that aside? Especially when your dad's a freakin' psychologist and you're supposed to be intelligent and observant?
Colt, the one who "kind of tortured everyone, come to think of it," turns out to be just fine. Not a murderer, anyway. Just a prankster! Silly Colt, who "had this weird habit of pranking all the girls he hooked up with, as a way to embarrass them for not going far enough, or just to break up with them"! What a kidder!
And last but so not least my brain's been screaming with it since I started reading this book:8. Quirky! Quirky! Quirky!
The novel starts out with a scene from the motel Kippy and her father are staying in:My name is Kippy Bushman, and I am bereaved. Right now I'm bereaved on the toilet. Well, not like going to the bathroom or anything, more like using it as a chair. For some reason the motel put a television in here, so I've got the seat down and my pajamas on with my knees pulled up toward my face.
My first thought on reading this was, "Really? The TV's in the bathroom?
That's a sign of things to come. In Friendship, Wisconsin, even the motel bathrooms are quirky.
So are the people. Every last one of them.
And not just bathroom-TV quirky. WAY quirky.
Look at Miss Rosa, the instructor at the local anger-management class! She's Polish, so she talks funny! (See point 4, above.)"Once I raise the puppies for money," she said. "The splendor make me wild. I squeeze too hard – poof! – many dead."
I think this is supposed to be funny. As is this:One time during a meditation session I let myself fall asleep on her shoulder and she pinched me. "Don't be closer please," she said. "I am wanting for to strangle."
Kippy returns to this class, bringing Davey with her. She's convinced this will help them learn the characteristics of a killer. She says they're there because Davey's abusive:"I keep hitting her," he says. "But I want to stop."
"You can't see the bruises because they're under my clothes," I add.
And, oh, yeah – Davey lost part of his hand while he was in the military, so Kippy goes along with it when Miss Rosa decides Kippy must have bitten off Davey's finger and that's why they need to take this workshop.
Kippy and her dad used to have a pet cat named Mother Peanut Butter. After the cat died, they got her professionally stuffed and mounted:And when she's not situated on her favorite spot on the couch, we even make her the centerpiece at our kitchen table.
She keeps Mother Peanut Butter out of the way when Davey comes over for dinner one night, though:Dom is frying hot dogs in mayonnaise and butter, breaking up white bread into a bowl with his free hand.
QUIRKY QUIRKY QUIRKY!
Kippy is briefly committed to a mental institution. Her roommate is a twelve-year-old American girl who's convinced she's a forty-year-old male detective from Scotland Yard.
Friendship, Wisconsin: A place where even the mentally ill are adorably quirky.
There's little room for mild response to the humor in this novel. If you don't love it, you'll loathe it.
I didn't love it.
One star, and please let me forget this book quickly.