Phoenix Cotton, a 16-year-old white girl, moves by herself through her unnamed high school life in an unnamed town, crushing on the white swimming hero Marlon Baldini.
She lives with her pharmaceutical sales rep mother, Erika, and her beloved 8-year-old, science-loving (and horror-film aficionado) sister, Sasha, in an old lakeside cabin while coping with their father's abandonment. Into this vulnerable family comes her English teacher, Mr. Jessup Smith, described as "young," "too charming," and a "reincarnation of a 1950s movie star," who starts off by offering the Cotton sisters a ride home but will immediately set off readers’ alarms when, in his agitation at Sasha’s putting her muddy boots on his clean car seats, he turns around and yanks them off. As he insinuates himself into Sasha's and Erika's hearts, his abusiveness surfaces—mostly toward Phoenix. But Smith and Baldini are not the only men moving in and out of the Cotton sisters' lives: Marlon's stepfather also charms Phoenix and Sasha while also serving as a connection to their father. But that's the book's problem: for a work whose original French title translates into All the Heroes Are Called Phoenix, the only heroes—the people who rise to act, both positively and negatively—are the men; Sasha's nerdy-girl irrepressibility is limited because she's 8. And the one who gets the worst of this treatment, in so many ways, is Phoenix herself.
A slow, dispiriting case study of abuse. (Thriller. 14-18)