Hard choices lead to bad decisions lead to terrible circumstances and to no choice to weird life changing decisions. That’s the story behind Those Girls by Chevy Stevens. When three sisters are forced to defend themselves against their abusive, alcoholic father, they end up hitting the road, running towards a future they can’t predict. All they want to do is get away. Forever. The journey will test the bonds of sisterhood like nothing they’ve experienced before. Some of these tests will come from feeling like they have no choice. Some of them come from a life that has led them to believe they can survive anything. Some come from terrible judgement calls. Some come from the fact that they are teenagers.
It’s always kind of neat to read a book that takes place somewhere you know. Set in rural British Columbia, the novel takes takes us through country where I have spent a bunch of time. The town names are familiar. The roads are familiar. I know the drive they took. I don’t know everywhere, but enough that I didn’t have to spend any time figuring out the setting. I knew it right away. Unfortunately, that opened up room for me to be extra annoyed by the dialogue tags. I am not a fan of he said, she said, said, said, said. Parts of this book felt like said was used a dozen times on a single page. No other tags were chosen. It made parts of this very dark book feel juvenile. It pulled me out of the action. Although, maybe it did kind of work because the narrators are juvenile.
This book suffered a little for me because of where it landed in my reading list (cough, cough, there are spoilers from here on out, deal with that). It was the third book in a row that included dark, horrible moments of rape. And I was in the middle of a Law & Order SVU rewatch. So I was a little tired of these kinds of books. That is going to colour my review. The dark sometimes felt a little too much but somehow also not enough. It’s a difficult balance. And then I started thinking about the use of something so awful as a technique for entertaining. And then I started questioning my own reading choices. But I kept reading, because I’m a reader and the book started out so good.
Jess is the youngest of three sisters. Living mostly alone while their father travels for work. Coming home to drink and beat them. Everyone in town knows what’s happening. They try their best to make sure the girls get what they need while their father is away, but that’s as far as it goes. That’s small town life. You don’t meddle. Even when the lives of three teenage girls are on the line. Literally. Until eventually, they kill their father in an attempt to save Courtney. This is one of those bad choice moments. People knew what was going on. The girls could have come forward with what they did. They might have had to live a couple years in foster care. They might have been punished. But they may have also gotten self defense and been able to move on with their lives. Instead, they decide to take off. They’d had previous bad experiences in foster care. They weren’t willing to do it again. So with no money and nowhere to go, with plans to sleep on the streets of Vancouver, they set off to escape. It’s a bad plan from the get go.
A bad plan that leads them to an empty road with a broken down truck and into the truck bed of a pair of boys who offer to help them. To give them a job and get their truck fixed. For three girls who have been through so much, this is where they make the worst of their decisions. Decisions that it feels like they should know better than to make. They know these guys feel off. They know they should keep going. They know. And yet, they take the boys up on their offer because they’ve set themselves up to have no other options.
And this is where their lives go from bad to fucking terrible. One of those just when you think it can’t get worse moments. Gavin and Brian, the two boys that ‘help’ them, imprison them and use them as sex toys for almost a week. It’s awful. You feel for these girls. Like a lot. Especially Courtney, whom Gavin takes a particular interest in. But this is all happening very early in the book, so you know, just know, they have to escape. Cause I’m not reading that many more pages about these girls being trapped like this. It would just be too much. Their escape is a little far fetched, until they reach Owen and his father. Townies who know the brothers are no good, but have no proof and again small town – don’t meddle. The escape from Cash Creek felt believable. The help the girls get from Patrick. Those people that help the lost exist under the radar – they exist. The girls getting to Vancouver. Finding new identities. Settling into new lives. That feels real. That’s the life I would have liked to follow.
But the book takes a turn that just doesn’t sit quite right for me. For one, it feels rushed. Jess, now Jamie, finds out she’s pregnant. Obviously, the father is Brian, since she was a virgin when he raped her. Too late for an abortion, she decides on adoption. Then we rush through the pregnancy to the birth. And then the book jumps seventeen years – to Jamie’s daughter Skylar. The light of her mother’s life. And the story is now told mostly through her eyes. We learn that Dallas (nee Dani)has become a boxer. She’s tough and cut off emotionally from everyone. Crystal (nee Courtney) is ruined. An addict constantly changing jobs and chasing the wrong kind of men. And Jamie is boring. She’s a great, over protective mom. That’s it. She has no other qualities. So these characters that could have been really deep. That could have explored how the events of your life break you and how you can rebuild becomes a motherhood will save your soul book. Barf.
From there, Skylar makes terrible choices. These aren’t choices she’s driven to by circumstance like her mother was. These are decisions. And they’re bad. Let’s chase after my broken aunt to the town that destroyed her and not tell anyone. And turn off my phone’s GPS locator. And invite this girl I just met to share a room with me and not make sure all my stuff is tucked away so she can’t rob me blind. Then let’s break into the house of the guy I know held my mom and aunts captive as sex slaves. It’s no surprise that she ends up trapped in that room with Crystal (who was also making terrible decisions, but I get her motivation). Marketed as a book about revenge, the only character seeking revenge is Crystal, who gets like a couple dozen pages of text time.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I liked the book. It was a good read. I’ve recommended it to other. But it could have been more. And it could have had a different message. It could have been an impactful message about surviving and thriving after rape. At the end, it even starts to shift to Skylar thinking about an eventual relationship with Brian’s other children. Maybe you can’t know until you’re in the situation, but I can’t imagine wanting to see that face everyday. To raise a child that came from such an ugly beginning. To not always be worried that she might inherit some of those qualities. But we never get to see how Jamie or her sisters deal with that. Or how Skylar deals now, knowing how she was conceived. Knowing her entire history was a lie. Knowing that her father & uncle were responsible for her aunt’s death. That her mother killed her grandfather. Does that break her? And what do the girls do once their original identities are outed? There are so many places this could have gone and didn’t.
In the end, the message is a little insipid. Love will save you. Sorry. I don’t buy it.