This is one of those rare books with such visual style that I almost couldn’t care less about the story inside. Luckily though, it’s as vibrant and exciting on the inside as it is on the outside.
In fact, it’s so beautiful my WordPress template doesn’t do it justice. So here’s the cover again.
For any of you who love 80’s nostalgia, this novel is a true monster mash of The Exorcist, Heathers, and The Breakfast Club. It explores the love, horror and intensity of teenage female friendships, and how difficult it can sometimes be to tell between a demon-possessed high school student, and one who’s simply hit puberty.
The 80’s theme is so thickly spread it’s almost cloying – you feel like if you squeezed the novel real hard, it would leak glitter and scratch-and-sniff stickers and Barbie perfume. It even comes with some 80’s music suggestions to read along with. But I loved all of these little details.
The plot is simple, but great. Abby Rivers and Gretchen (yes, you thought Weiner too, I know you did) have been best friends since Abby’s 10th birthday party at a roller skating party. Gretchen was the only one who turned up, and they’ve been an unlikely E.T. and Madonna-loving, scrunchie-wearing alliance ever since. They describe their love as ‘Dearly but not Queerly’. From the very start, Abby is a character who understands that life is what you make it. She may be poor, her parents might be bores and she might not enjoy school, but she can choose to focus on the good things, and be sure to protect herself by “opening and closing her door as fast as possible, so that none of the poison gas that made her parents so depressing could follow her.”
The main story is set in 1988, when they enter high school and their troupe expands to include a few other friends – Margaret and Glee. And guess what! Margaret’s got a lake house. And a stash of LSD.
After a particularly strange skinny-dipping experience, Gretchen disappears and is found later in the woods without her memory or her clothes. The incident is mostly forgotten until Gretchen rings Abby to say: “Invisible hands had been touching her all night […] Touching her face, tapping her shoulders, stroking her chest.” Slowly Abby watches as Gretchen starts behaving more bizarrely, spreading rumors about their former friends and manipulating their lives to the point of eating disorders or attempted suicide. Over time, she even stops looking like Gretchen: “Gretchen kept her sleeves rolled down no matter how warm the weather was. Some mornings she showed up with filthy Band-Aids on her fingertips. Her breath got worse. Her tongue became coated in a thick white film […] Abby really looked at Gretchen, trying to see who was there, not just who had always been there before.”
Small things. All things that can be explained. Until Abby sits with Gretchen in the cafeteria, looking at the girl who continues to smile sweetly, seemingly unaware that her hand is writing on a slip of paper to Abby: ‘not me not me help me not.’
Abby knows that something happened to Gretchen in the woods. And she knows that Gretchen is now hell-bent on destroying all her friends. She’s determined to stop her, and save her, before it’s too late.
Any detail beyond that would be ruining the fantastically dramatic scenes that come after. Gretchen destroys the girls in ways that mirror many disorders young women inflict upon themselves, making it VERY ‘Mean Girls’ and infinitely fascinating.
It feels like what Bunny by Mona Awad was trying to do (3 star review here) with the initial dichotomy of vibrant young women and dark demon possession – but so much better. It’s not overly romanticised either as Grady touches on some darker elements of the time: “Five years later, Slave Day was gone as if it had never existed, but in 1988 no one dreamed that it could possibly be offensive. It was a tradition.”
There is so much heart in this book between the two best friends, it genuinely made me well up towards the end. There are sentences in particular that Hendrix has included which feel almost seismic: “Every day I tell myself my life must be worth something because you keep trying to save it.”
This book is the dramatic lengths you told yourself as a high schooler you could go to, to save your friends. Unfortunately, in reality, that friendship deterioration is very rarely a demonic possession and more just . . . life.