The Female of the Species
[read on audio]
Summary via Publisher’s Weekly
Three high school seniors come together in McGinnis’s harrowing rumination on the nature of violence and the power of friendship in a small town. Three years ago, Alex Craft’s older sister, Anna, was raped and murdered, but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict the killer. Someone took matters into his or her own hands and killed the perpetrator, and McGinnis (A Madness So Discreet) doesn’t make it hard to guess who. Once a girl on the periphery, Alex attracts the attention of jock Jack Fisher, who’s more than just a guy who can put a ball through a net. Despite differing personalities, Alex and Peekay—shorthand for preacher’s kid, though her real name is Claire—bond while volunteering at the local animal shelter, with Peekay in awe of Alex’s stoicism.
So Many Thoughts!
The Female of the Species is another book that I read after SEYA Fest ’17 (I just reviewed another one). In fact, I started the audio of this one on the trip back. I have a lot to say about this book, much of it wound up in relatively incoherent feelings, but I’ll try to put this into some semblance of order.
This book is not for the faint of heart. It deals graphically with sexual assault, murder, animal abuse, sex, underage drinking, and drug abuse. The cursing is explicit and frequent. You have been warned.
Honestly, the cursing and graphic sex descriptions made me uncomfortable and I contemplated quitting the book, but I decided that the theme and the book’s place in YA literature made it worthwhile to continue. (I think there’s an extra reason why I was uncomfortable, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)
The summary doesn’t tell you, but the chapters rotate POV among Alex, Jack, and Peekay/Claire. The division of POV is handled exquisitely, with each character highlighting a different element of growing up and the peculiar pressures of a small town. And Jack and Claire offset Alex’s unmitigated darkness, offering perspective and a little lightness.
Alex is a murderer (vigilante–same thing). That’s not a spoiler–she tells you so very early on, frequently repeating, “This is how I kill someone.” As a mantra goes, it’s powerful. While this book as a whole is important and powerful, Alex is the hook that kept me reading. She is dark and violent without becoming a stereotype. She is capable of making friends and falling in love, although that capacity isn’t initially apparent. In Alex, McGinnis crafted a believably violent girl, a teenage vigilante who embodies the best and worst strength of the female of the species.
While most girls don’t turn to murder, I think many girls (me among them) will recognize Alex’s rage. When confronted with double standards, casual sexism, and rape/abuse culture, we seethe, the perpetrators protected only by social convention. Exploring that rage felt (perhaps wrongly?) very cathartic.
Violence against women is prevalent in this book. McGinnis does not pull her punches here. In a scene I especially appreciate, Alex reflects on the spectacle of a boy humping a basketball in gym class. The other students are laughing at his “clowning around.”
I wonder what would happen if I went down there, took a ball out of the cage, and pretended to have sex with it. I think people would stop and look. I think the whole gym would come to a standstill and teachers would definitely interfere. There would be discussions (again) about what exactly is wrong with me that I would do such a thing. I would definitely log some more hours in the guidance office.
But ‘boys will be boys,’ our favorite phrase that excuses too many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is ‘women,’ said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.
So one of the main characters is a pastor’s daughter, the golden girl of a small town. Peekay is a classically rebellious preacher’s kid, expounding on her boyfriend’s penis and getting blackout drunk in the woods. And that was…well, quite uncomfortable. I am a PK. And I’m a little tired of the extreme representations of kids like me. Like most people, pastor’s kids generally fall somewhere in the middle–a bit more conservative than their peers, but probably less conservative than their parents realize. Claire’s struggle with her identity was difficult for me to watch, although I appreciate the realism of it. (Pastor’s kids have names. They would like for you to use them.)
I had no idea what was happening for most of this book and I loved that. It’s very difficult to predict how it will end, although the ending does feel inevitable. I was happy with it.
The Female of the Species is an excellent, thought-provoking, heart-rending read. If you are comfortable with (or can handle) the explicit and dark material, you’ll be rewarded with characters and a story you won’t soon forget.
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