I found this book the old fashioned way – wandering the bookstore looking for nothing in particular. There it was, sitting on an endcap among a bunch of other books touting strong female protagonists. Something about it drew me in. I’d already picked up more books than I had planned that day, so I tossed this one on my library list and waited. It came in just in time for vacation. A trip to the mountains in the autumn – a perfect time for a dark book about dark music. I really wasn’t sure what this book was even about from the synopsis, except heavy metal. So, when I started the book and the first paragraph was one of the best openings I’ve ever read, I was excited. It was so compelling that I immediately read it aloud to my friend. She had the same reaction. I began to devour it. I had eight days of vacation. That was plenty of time to finish this book. And for the first third of the book, I was mostly sold.
I understood this girl. Not her metal inclinations, but her feeling of not fitting in. She was a girl in a smallish town that couldn’t really find her footing. She didn’t know what she was looking for, but she knew it wasn’t what the people around her were offering. She had no exposure to the media she would eventually connect to, so she floundered. And then one day, by accident, she hears the music. Those dulcet tones of screaming and playing hard. I don’t get it. It’s never been my kind of music, but for Rachel, it was the thing that gave her direction. Here she found an outlet for her emotions. She channeled her anger and inability to fit in into these lyrics. She no longer cared about the typical way because she had found her way. She found her way in the pounding beats and violent imagery. In her early exploration, she channeled these feelings into graphic, angry poetry. It makes sense for a girl of fifteen with no other outlet.
She does what many young girls do – finds a pop culture icon she can connect to and becomes obsessed with it. For Rachel it’s more than just the music. It’s the scene and the bands. Especially this band called DED and its lead singer. She fantasizes about their future together. About meeting and falling madly in love. This is not abnormal for teens. Obsession is part of that whole brain development thing. As adults we look back with embarrassment and are thankful that most of us are too nervous/shy to act on those obsessions. Rachel is not that girl. At least not after she meets Fern.
And it’s after she meets Fern that the book starts to live up to its name. The middle portion is drivel. Pure and simple. The girls decide to form a metal band – and for pages and pages and pages we get nonsense about the band. It is not stimulating. It is boring. It is typical. Even through Rachel’s inexplicable anger at absolutely everything. Through her punching out men and puking on concert goers and other ridiculous shenanigans. Through all of this, it’s still boring. I wanted to connect to Rachel’s anger about the way women are treated in this subculture. To the rejection of gender roles. To her being and doing all the things that the boys did. I wanted to find footing in this feminist manifesto. But I didn’t. Because this book is not that. Rachel isn’t just an unlikable narrator. I don’t mind that at all. She’s an inexplicable narrator. She never seems to settle on anything. Nothing makes her angry, because absolutely everything makes her angry. I never felt anything she felt. I just got told that she was really fucking angry.
And this brings us to my major problem with the novel. Well, I actually had two major problems. When the hell does this book take place? They use the internet, but not a lot. They don’t have modern tech. They’re still burning cds and sending things through the mail. No one has cell phones. But it doesn’t read like a book from the 80s or 90s. We’re never given a time, and with access to music so intrinsically linked to technology, it leaves the story feeling ungrounded instead of timeless. But that’s a minor issue compared to the writing. The writing… I hated it. Like actually hated it. If the opening hadn’t been so strong, I wouldn’t have finished it. I kept waiting for it get better, but everything was so over explained. I walked to the door and then put my hand on the knob and then turned the knob and then opened the door. There was a person on the other side. That person was so and so. I’m paraphrasing here, but this is how the whole book read. This wasn’t describing a pivotal scene. This would be how something as mundane as answering the door was described. It actually started to make me angry. We get this ridiculous level of detail for simple things, but then when something actually important happens, we get nothing.
After following the band around for a good chunk of the book, we get to the catalyst for the beginning of the book. The paragraph that tells us that Rachel and Fern are murderers. So what happens to make these two girls who just want to play music and prove they can be stars into killers? Well, they finally get to meet their idols. As the old saying goes… Rachel finally meet the guys from DED and ends up getting raped by her long time celebrity crush while Fern is gang raped by the rest of the band. This should have been a horrific scene. A truly and utterly horrific scene that should have made the reader ache for these two girls. But instead Taylor literally doesn’t talk about it. In this book of excessive detail, she chooses this moment to fall silent. This moment, at this time, in this climate of rape culture, to say nothing. And then when Fern actually does the right thing and says they should report and get checked out, Rachel pushes those instincts aside and says they should just sit on it until they can get their revenge. Not sit on it because no one will believe them or because they went there willingly, but because she wants her revenge. And she plans the most ridiculous scheme – the band will get super famous. They will go on tour with DED. They will kill them then so everyone knows who did it. It makes sense. When something really bad happens, it’s instinct to come up with ludicrous scenarios to make ourselves feel better. This is just another one of those ridiculous fantasies that teenage Rachel had. But it’s exactly how it happens…
But first Fern loses her mind. As she would, having no outlet after her rape. After being told by her closest friend to supress her emotions until this ridiculous fantasy came true. Fern finally snaps and attacks a man who was leering at her. She was probably in the throes of PTSD, but that’s not explored. Fern begins to thrive after this attack. Entering into something called a pink cloud (thank you, Law & Order). She’s on a crash course to destruction. Rachel starts to shut off, to pull back. But she still will not look directly at her rape. She still lives in her revenge bubble. And then, just when she’s about to crack, tada, the miracle or miracle happens and this tiny band is invited to play a festival headlined by DED. This is the break they’ve been waiting for. Now, I’m not saying that this could never happen for this band. I’ve gone to a lot of music festivals. The ones for smaller subgenres of music often pull unheard of bands that are making a name for themselves on the touring circuit. It is totally possible, but it’s just so damn convenient.
And then the revenge happens and it’s wholly unsatisfying. I felt no satisfaction for these girls because I feel like they got no satisfaction out of it. They got nothing. This book started with so much promise and ended with a thunk. I never connected with Rachel. I felt more of a connection with Fern, but for such a pivotal character, she was pretty superfluous. These girls wanted to rage against the indignity, but they just ended up acting like spoiled little girls. The premise of this story actually could have worked. It could have been a powerful missive about gender and rape and society. But it wasn’t. And for that, I place all the blame on the writing style. It will make or break the novel for you. For me, it broke it.