Title: The Female of the Species
Author: Mindy McGinnis
Genre: Contemporary, YA, Thriller
Rating: ★★★★☆ | 3.5
warnings for: rape, murder, attempted rape, violence, body mutilation, animal cruelty, gun violence, drugging
For the record, the book is not textually as racially diverse as the photoset on our Tumblr. But y’all know me; if I can, I will.
That said, this novel is dark as fuck.
There’s Alex, there’s Peekay, and then there’s Jack, and the three of them are high school seniors dissatisfied with the small, rural town they grew up in. Alex, because her mother’s distance, her father’s disappearance, her sister’s rape and murder, and her own vigilante justice have created an incredible mental burden. Peekay, because her identity is tied so closely with her father being the preacher that her name–Claire–isn’t even hers to inhabit. She’s Peekay, for PK, for Preacher’s Kid. And Jack, because he knows he has the drive and the ambition to do more than the town is offering him, but he’s constantly being pulled back by his guilt–on the day they found Alex’s sister’s body, he had been fooling around in the woods smoking pot and having sex instead of helping look.
The three of them grow closer senior year, Peekay because she’s working with Alex at the local animal shelter and Jack because, even though he always slides back into a comfortable relationship with local it-girl Branley, he’s been secretly obsessed with knowing more about Alex for years as some kind of penance for his behaviour. But Alex brings with her a constant reminder of what can happen to a girl, and she’s not willing to let people slide.
More than the obvious issues that the novel brings up, it also deals in many ways with internalised sexism and the willingness of people to scapegoat girls for things that are out of their control––at a rape awareness event at school, boys “jokingly” beg for Branley to get raped because she’s the “hot one.” Peekay blames Branley for her boyfriend’s infidelity. Jack wishes for Branley to become someone she was ten years ago instead of appreciating who she is now. Branley isn’t the nicest person, but Alex is right–she doesn’t deserve that.
It also deals with being a bystander: in one of the novel’s key moments, Peekay realises that her own silence has made her complicit, even though she never meant to be. And she grows disgusted at the friend of her attempted rapist, who claims he “never would have done it.” Yet did he not allow others to drug her? And did she not also stand by while people objectified Branley?
Alex, then, is the moral centre of the story, because she is never silent, never passive, never giving people passes. Which is kind of funny, because she is also the novel’s only still-living killer. This isn’t a spoiler–the first chapter details the process of tracking down her sister’s murderer and rapist and making sure he pays in ways the law never forced him to. Y’all know I love a good amoral girl killer, but Alex’s relationship with violence was also a little more difficult. She knows it’s wrong, and she knows she should stop, but she feels no remorse for killing people who ought to be dead. She’s willing to change, she wants to change, but she sees the same patterns of behaviour that led to a man thinking he was entitled to her sister’s body in her high school, in the crowd she hangs with. Peekay is labeled a prude because she won’t “put out. Branley is labeled a slut because she’s been told her whole life that her only value is in her looks.
It’s a really painful book, because so much of the casual sexism is so familiar, but at the same time it’s a difficult book to review, because it’s hard to parse my thoughts in a way that’s coherent. So here are a few more scattered thoughts:
- I wish the novel had more of a sense of direction. It may be part of the conceit, because sexism is so nebulous that it’s both undirected and directed at everyone, but though the writing was engaging, I often felt myself wondering where the novel was going with any of this. I’m still not quite sure that it’s resolved any of it.
- I was unsure if some of the sexism in the book was intentional (as a way of throwing light on sexism in real life) or unintentional (engaging in it itself). This isn’t really a good thing in a novel that’s about sexism.
- I really, really appreciated the fact that Anna’s rape and death take place off-screen. What little is revealed is already horrific, and one can basically extrapolate, but I hate novels that take gendered violence as a site of exploitative shockmongering, and this didn’t do that, even though it so easily could have.
- The ending failed to capture me emotionally, but this may be because I pre-emptively spoiled myself.
Overall, for me, the book was a little underwhelming, largely because I have seen so much praise for it and I think it’s fairly evident by now that I’m often contrary for the sake of being contrary because my personal standards for four/five star books are really high, but I did ultimately enjoy this novel, and I would definitely recommend this if you’re not squeamish about violence and a protagonist who feels no remorse for killing.