Female friendships, if turned rotten, can be excruciating, scarring and downright dangerous. If you’re trying to extricate yourself from a pack of women who have group power, then you can stumble out the end of that fight feeling like you’ve been completely stripped to the bone.
In this novel, Awad tries to find a new way of exploring this kind of female experience, pulling it from reality and turning it into something truly unique and fantastical. This is Mean Girls if Tina Fey had been on acid while she wrote it, mixed with a Stepford-Wife-colored version of The Craft. But while it’s something different, I feel like the plot is misshapen, and while it had the monsters, it was missing the teeth to really grab me and pull me in.
The start of this story starts out pretty typically – Samantha is a young fiction writer who feels completely alienated from her female cohort, as most of them come from privileged backgrounds and interact in ways that are totally alien to her. The four women all have the same nickname for each other – “Bunny” – which is a good representation of their bound state and codependency. Samantha and her roommate, Ava, despise their cutesy language and over-affectionate hugging, praying that “their ardent squeezing might cause the flesh to ooze from their sleeves, neckholes, and A-line hems of their cupcake dresses like so much inane frosting.”
But Samantha feels alone as an outcast, and is intrigued by the idea of being invited to join their exclusive group-writing workshop, ‘The Smut Salon’. When she finally receives an invitation, she goes to their opulent house with the intention of reporting back their ridiculous antics to Ava, but instead finds herself slightly spellbound and intoxicated by their presence.
As the Bunnies pull Samantha in further, she starts to lose her grip on reality and her own identity, quickly morphing into their dress, their nicknames and finding herself “wearing a string of pearls that, the first time they were clasped around my neck, felt like strangling but after a week felt like nothing at all.” The plot is clearly supposed to be as disorienting as the new ‘reality’, but to me it felt like Samantha was a passive spinning top in the middle of a million new inventions, and as a reader I felt more like I was skimming the surface of the experiences rather than being grounded in them.
There is definitely an awful lot of subtext bubbling away under the surface, as complicated a web of things as you would find in bad female friendship groups, but it does feel lost in the higher metaphorical main plot which overrides everything by the end. Awad touches on sexuality, social dynamics, confidence, writing groups, sanity, mob mentality, likeability, identity etc. in various ways and I wish that could have been more of the focus, outside of a giant metaphor.
I won’t give anything more away as it’s a new novel and invite you to read it yourself to see whether you found the same. I will tell you that it includes a spritz of animal sacrifice, a dash of spontaneous body explosions and a pepper of reanimation. So, if that floats your boat, have at it.
That being said about the plot, I did enjoy some of Awad’s writing style, which was literary but also very visceral at points. There was a lot of comparison to food – sickly sweetness – and that related across to the more gruesome scenes, which made it feel more tangible. Some of my favorite quotes include:
When talking about feeling vulnerable and child-like again: “I have forgotten that I am a twenty five year old woman. The heart Rob Valencia holds in his hand is a seventeen year old heart, warped and badly drawn.”
When referring to one of the side effects of their experiments: “Skull hail. Brain rain.”
When being faced with a member of the group putting on an act to the group but sending a silent message that she is in trouble: “Then she looks at me with a smile like glass breaking.”
The feeling of having to maintain your own act, too: “My smile is fixed on my face, nailed there, though it jerks under the pins.”
I don’t regret reading this book, but I do feel that the ‘frightening’ elements of this novel that have been revered by critics were actually the tamest. And maybe this comes back to my own decimating experience at an all-girls high school, but I feel like the minefield of toxic female friendships don’t need any fantastical embellishments. They don’t need any monsters, or threats, or fantastical rituals and sacrifices added – they’re scary and destructive enough on their own.
And on that note, here’s a real cute bunny to lighten the mood.
Be kind to one another!