Books, Reviews, YA Fiction

The Lives Of Desperate Girls, by MacKenzie Common (ARC review) | zeroes in on real issues but fails to be truly engaging

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One small, northern community. Two girls gone — one missing, the other dead. A riveting coming-of-age debut young adult novel for fans of Everything I Never Told You and All the Bright Places. 

Sixteen-year-old Helen Commanda is found dead just outside Thunder Creek, Ontario. Her murder goes unremarked, except for the fact that it may shed light on the earlier disappearance of Chloe Shaughnessy. Chloe is beautiful, rich and white. Helen is plain, and from the reservation. They had nothing in common except that they were teenage girls from an unforgiving small town. Only Chloe’s best friend Jenny Parker knows exactly how unforgiving, but she’s keeping some dangerous secrets of her own. 

Jenny begins looking for answers about Helen’s life and death, trying to understand larger questions about her town and her best friend. But what can a teenage girl really accomplish where adults have failed? And how much is Jenny actually complicit in a conspiracy of silence?

*An ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.*

I was very close to DNFing The Lives Of Desperate Girls many times while reading it, but fortunately I stuck around long enough to finish the book. I commend it for its improvement as I went on, the thing The Lives Of Desperate Girls does best is its raw yet poignant commentary of social issues such as racism and sexism, as well as focusing on the common struggles of teenagers, like bullying and depression. Unfortunately, everything else in the book is glaringly underdeveloped and just uninteresting.

The Lives Of Desperate Girls is set in Canada, in a small town named Thunder Creek, located somewhere in northern Ontario. It’s a fairly poor and underdeveloped area, and there is a very visible divide between the mostly white residents and the nearby Natives. This is seen multiple times throughout the book, specifically with the police completely and utterly favoring Chloe, a white girl, and her missing case, and pushing aside Helen, a native girl, and her murder case. In the midst of other examples, I actually thought Jenny’s feelings about the blatant racism in her community were quite realistic and told well, without sounding too preachy. I didn’t know too much about Canada’s First Nations and reading about their history and life was interesting, and how they dealt with the Thunder Creek community definitely pulled on your heartstrings yet made you think. The discussion on gender inequality was also well-done, zeroing in on rape and slut-shaming, and the disparities between social class was also talked about in detail.

Most of the Goodreads reviews of this book seemed to mention the clunkiness of the writing, and I definitely have to agree with that. It is frustratingly bland for most of the time, but it does have its moments, specifically while exploring the numerous social issues that this story covers. At those times, the prose is surprisingly relatable, honest, and sophisticated all at once. If only it had been that way throughout.

The mystery/thriller plot is one of the low points for this book, while Common tries to add a number of elements to up the anticipation for the big reveal, it ultimately falls flat due to bad storytelling. First off, the writing doesn’t make it that thrilling for the reader either, it’s incredibly unexciting and fails to trigger any sort of anticipation or curiosity. Secondly, Jenny’s motivation to play detective is never, ever put into words properly or even conveyed at all. She gets into all types of dangerous antics to ‘solve’ Helen’s murder and for what? We never know the true motivation behind her actions in general, in fact, everything going on in Jenny’s investigation in very vague and directionless. For all her sleuthing, Jenny doesn’t even seem to have direction in mind and often randomly throws guesses at who the killer is, usually people she already knows or has met. Thirdly, Jenny’s big secret on Chloe’s disappearance. Can’t say much about that due to spoilers, but y’all can experience that bullshit for yourselves and then get back to me.

The characters are clearly the biggest low point in this novel, which is tragic, because even if the mystery part of it fell flat, the novel could have redeemed itself through its characters and contemporary side. Jenny is one of the most inconsistent characters ever. Her narration in the first 30% in incredibly passive and monotone, and while she does improve later on, her entire personality changes when she’s supposed to be a quiet and ordinary girl. She meets shady people, goes to places she shouldn’t go to, and adamantly refuses to talk to the police on Chloe’s case (we still don’t know why that is *sighs*). We never see her true psychological trauma and struggle after Chloe’s disappearance and while she does change throughout the book, it’s so sudden, unrealistic, and vague. She does have a love interest, Tom, who is equally dull and one-dimensional. They both suddenly decide to ‘fall in love’ through a few smoke and make-out sessions, and it develops into the most ridiculous romance ever.

If you’re in for an eye-opening piece of commentary on the several social issues in our world, The Lives Of Desperate Girls is worth tuning in to. But, if you came for an intriguing murder mystery, a heartfelt contemporary, or even something remotely fascinating, you can do better than this one.

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