(Goodreads summary here.)
I really didn’t know what to expect going into this book. The summary really doesn’t do a lot to tell you what it’s about, and honestly, that was part of what intrigued me about it. As much as I like knowing what I’m about to read, I like being surprised almost as much, mostly because it’s rare for me to not know what I’m getting myself into.
I’ll tell you what this book is about. It’s about grief, and anger, and revenge. It’s about finding yourself and learning to love. It’s about overcoming stereotypes and breaking down barriers that can prevent us from seeing other people as humans who are deserving of love and respect. It doesn’t pull any punches; it’s dark, yet powerful, and I think it’s so important.
It’s also important to note that I read this in practically one sitting. It helps that I finally had a day to do nothing and was in a great reading mood, but this was also just the perfect book for me to read in a single day. I was just riveted from the beginning.
*Before I actually start the review, I want to point out some content warnings. The book is very strongly rooted in a commentary on rape culture, so please be aware that it is discussed throughout. Seeing as it is a large portion of the book, I will also be talking about it in my review. In addition, the book itself has some fairly descriptive scenes of violence, although I will not be talking about them here. So, reader, beware.
There are parts of this books that are incredibly hard to read. However, everything that is depicted in this book, no matter how brutal or upsetting, is certainly very real. Yes, some aspects are dramatized, but it doesn’t change the fact that it happens every day in a very real way. Coming to that realization is so essential to the book and its message, because if you can’t see how utterly wrong certain parts of this book are, I don’t know how to help you. Rape is wrong, and I, nor anyone else, shouldn’t have to tell you that. You shouldn’t have to read this book to learn how irrevocably damaging it can be, to the victim and everyone around them. But this book is here, and it’s important, and it forces you to really think about what it means to live in our society.
I liked that we know from the very beginning what Alex has done. It created a unique kind of suspense, where instead of waiting to find out who the killer is, we are waiting to see if she’ll do it again and when others will figure it out. There’s no murder mystery to solve, even in the presence of murder. It changes the way we see her character. Her motives aren’t clear at the beginning, and that becomes a part of the mystery as well. We know Alex has done terrible things, but she does them with a sense of justice that we can’t ignore. It makes us question what we would do in her shoes since we can see why she felt the need to do them. Does that make her a bad person? Does it make us a bad person for seeing where she’s coming from, maybe even agreeing with her? I don’t know. And I don’t think you’re supposed to know.
Alex could very easily have been an emotionless character who is simply used as a plot device at the expense of being portrayed as a whole person. That is not the case. Her feelings grow with her as a character, and even though she does things that aren’t exactly moral, we can see that she doesn’t do it because she doesn’t care. On the contrary, she does it because she cares too much. And it’s an interesting place to root a character, since we so often see killers as unfeeling. She’s such a unique character with a convoluted sense of justice, who wrestles with emotions and rationality and morality. You can’t overlook the fact that she does good things, things that aren’t defined by violence. Alex may see it all as some sort of personal penance for her actions, but does that mean they’re any less good? I think we’re supposed to learn that Alex is a good person who only sees one way to solve the problems she encounters, and that way is not the right way.
Claire (and I will call her Claire and not Peekay because I agree with Alex that she’s more than just the preacher’s kid and I won’t let her be defined by that) was my favorite character. She starts off with so many prejudices that she ends up largely overcoming in the end. I was so worried at the beginning that she would end up just whining about her ex-boyfriend the whole book, but she becomes so much more than that. Claire becomes her own person, and I loved every bit of seeing her on that journey. I liked that she learned to look beyond the stereotypes she was taught, largely thanks to Alex, but it happens in a believable way. All too often, I see characters instantly overcoming their prejudices (and I complain about it a lot), but Claire doesn’t learn right away. She keeps making mistakes, keeps trying to convince herself that she’s right even when Alex and her experiences say otherwise. It’s such a genuine representation of educating yourself that I loved seeing.
And Jack. I honestly don’t have much to say about him other than I didn’t really like him and think I could’ve done without him. He was whiny and obsessive and made some very bad decisions. At the same time, I hate that didn’t like him because these are things that make him human. I’m also pretty convinced that we’re not supposed to like him, which is really refreshing. I’m honestly kind of sick of having a flawless love interest; it’s unrealistic and, quite frankly, boring. For him to have flaws, and a lot of them at that, was nice to see. It just didn’t make me like him any more as a person, and if I met him in real life, I’m sure I would avoid him at all costs. Still, I’ll take a character who I can see being real over one that is clearly fabricated any day.
Another thing I really loved was the Alex’s friendship with Claire was just as, if not more, important than Alex’s relationship with Jack. I’m so here for strong, loving female friendships and that is exactly what we get. Alex and Claire change each other, no matter how wonderfully imperfect both of them are. It really shows the impact you can make on another person’s life, whether you mean to or not. You don’t have to be perfect or even a good person to be a good influence on others, and the two of them really exemplify that. This book, to me, wasn’t about Jack and Alex getting together; it was about Alex and Claire learning and growing because of each other. I think that, at its core, this is a story of friendship more than it is a story of romance. The friendship between Alex and Claire is far more compelling than the budding but tumultuous relationship between Alex and Jack. I do understand why the relationship is included and appreciate that it isn’t pointless, but I just didn’t care about it nearly as much as I cared about the friendship.
The writing was really stellar, in my opinion. I do like books with alternate points of view, but I also sometimes find that the voice doesn’t really change between characters. McGinnis does a phenomenal job giving each character their own voice. Jack, Alex, and Claire sounded like they were their own people, even down to the more narrative portions. It was a really nice touch to the actual storytelling aspect of it. It manages to be deep and philosophical while still being easily readable and compelling.
Now down to the rough stuff. I thought the discussion of rape and rape culture is so, so essential. The characters reflect very real and very different perspectives on rape culture as a whole. Claire has what is, unfortunately, very typical slut-shaming view. She also has the privilege to have never directly experienced abuse at the beginning of the book. Even after she does experience it, she still hangs onto parts of what she’s been taught by society about girls who hook up with a lot of people. A large part of Claire’s character development, as I mentioned above, is learning to move beyond that. It’s really essential for readers, regardless of their gender, to see the problems with her view and why it matters that she was able to move past them. Jack is very stereotypically male, thinking very little with his head and very much with other things. He may not actively participate in abuse, but he plays a passive role in not doing anything about it. The reality is that this is a common view, and, even with the tragic end of the book, I’m not convinced he has learned everything he needs to in order to fight the cultural norms. We see practically every other character take steps towards making changes, however small, but Jack really doesn’t. I think it’s one of the reasons I dislike his character as a whole. He seems very obsessed with Alex and what she believes but doesn’t have the will to act on his own in ways that are beneficial to others, even if that’s what she wants. Alex has an interesting role. She has clear ideals about what is right and wrong and refuses to be swayed by what society tells her, yet she does things we cannot condone. She has lost her sister, and it alters her profoundly. Yet she takes an approach to solutions that we would not, one that is far too extreme for reality. However, Alex’s actions make the other characters in the story realize what the less bloody solution is. Without that contrast, they would never have learned the way they do in the end, and it’s the end that’s really important, seeing the characters acknowledge the issues of rape culture and take steps towards eliminating it. And that’s really what’s powerful about this book: watching people make changes to their words and attitudes to benefit others.
Alright, so that was a lot. I didn’t realize I had that many thoughts about this book, but clearly it had an impact on me. I try my hardest to look beyond the prejudices society wants me to see, and I think anything that helps reinforce that for me is essential to overcoming the problems of society. Sure, this book takes an unusual and uncommon approach to the issue as a whole, but it just makes it more interesting and compelling.
What did you think of The Female of the Species? Are there any other books that helped change the way you view others? Are there any other books with social commentary that have an unusual way of presenting it?