The books didn’t help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own.
I am vengeance.
—The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis
When Alex Craft was a freshman in high school, her older sister Anna was raped and murdered. For the last three years, Alex has hardly talked to anyone. At school, she flies under the radar—earning stellar grades, but avoiding all meaningful contact with her peers—at home, she and her mother cohabitate, but rarely interact.
Now, due to the senior volunteer requirement and a close race for valedictorian, she is getting to know two of her classmates: Peekay (short for “Preacher’s Kid”), who she’s volunteering with at the local animal shelter, and Jack, whose grades are almost as fantastic as hers. Getting to know them brings her into the orbit of other people, and through all of them, back into the world.
She is brilliant, she is funny, she is sensitive, she is excellent at reading people and relationships, she is well-read and articulate and she is a good friend—but Alex has a dark side, a deep well of murderous rage. And unlike most people, she doesn’t confine her rage to rants or daydreams—she acts on it. She introduces herself to the reader—and begins the book—by saying, This is how I kill someone.
In all honesty, I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for what seems like hours, because I have no idea how to begin analyzing my reactions to this book. When I finished it, I just barely avoided throwing my Kindle across the room. I cried on and off for hours, not because I was sad, but because I was so profoundly ANGRY.
It enraged me on multiple levels: because of what it was, and because of what it wasn’t; because of the stories it told, and because of the stories it didn’t tell. Because of the characters who got a voice, and because of the characters who didn’t; because of the issues and tropes it raised and engaged with, but also because of the way in which it raised and engaged with them. Some of that anger felt righteous—The Female of the Species reflects and explores some of the worst aspects of growing up female in this culture and in this time, and it does it in a way that often feels honest and true and real. But by the end of the book, my anger was almost entirely directed at the book itself—because ultimately, all of its strengths are undermined by the plotting and characterization.
What worked for me:
I liked that most of the parents are actually active parts of their childrens’ lives.
I liked the imagery—difficult as it was to read—of the slaughterhouse and of the animal shelter, how both threads show peoples’ capacity for love… and their willingness to treat others as disposable objects.
I liked the depiction of life after a murder in the family—in terms of how it would play out in a small town, as well as how it would play out at home. I liked the depiction of life in a small town: in how everyone knows everyone elses’ history; in how the teen characters all party where their parents used to party; in how more than once, shared history leads to characters crossing clique lines.
I liked the acknowledgement of the bizarre need some young men have to draw penises on everything; how commonplace rape jokes are and the pain that they bring. I appreciated the various moments that highlight the neverending double standards attached to gender, in our different reactions to the same behavior from young men versus young women.
I liked how Alex’s violence stemmed from an abundance of empathy, rather than from a lack of conscience.
I didn’t like that the thread about slut-shaming ultimately reinforced slut-shaming more than it deconstructed it.
I didn’t like that Branley, the character who is at one point praised and defended for her sex-positivity, is ultimately used as a plot point about the Dangers Of Promiscuity.
While there was pushback against the idea that showing skin leads to sexual violence, I didn’t like that the two characters who were threatened with rape were both showing skin.
I didn’t like the multiple usages of the phrase ‘flesh-colored’ as a synonym for ‘peach’—Crayola figured that one out way back in the ‘60s, and it would be nice to see the YA world follow suit. Ditto the othering joke about Islam—the line would have worked perfectly well if Peekay had used a different Christian denomination—and ditto Peekay’s entirely unnecessary white savior-y daydream about adopting a sister from Africa.
I didn’t like how cosmetics were equated with shallowness and dishonesty and a lack of confidence.
I didn’t like that Branley’s actions at the end of the book were more convenient to the plot than they were true to her character.
I didn’t like that Jack’s attraction to Alex is based in the She’s Not Like Other Girls mentality. Similarly, I didn’t like Jack’s ongoing refrain about his attraction to her modest clothing versus the “sea of flesh” at school, or how his perspective contradicted every empowering thing the female characters thought or said or did. By the end of the book, I flat-out hated him—my notes devolved into illegible profanity—and I don’t think I was supposed to.
While I saw it coming from almost the very first page, I didn’t like the use of the Redemption Through Death trope, and I didn’t like that it suggested that Alex was in need of redemption, period. I didn’t like that the use of that trope ultimately turned Alex into a plot device, purely there to inspire growth in the other characters.
She deserved better than that. But then, so do all of our real-life girls.
So I don’t know, maybe it isn’t the book that has me so angry. Maybe it’s the world we live in.
No, you know what? It’s both.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.