The Female of the Species
by Mindy McGinnis
It is probably best, in reviewing books, to stay away from comparisons; no two authors are the same, no two books are the same, no two readers are the same, and so any attempt to compare experiences will inevitably come up short.
On the other hand, if you can’t compare two reading experiences, there’s not much point in book reviews and recommendations in the first place. So let me give this a shot.
I have two comparisons I want to make with this book. The first is to another book, probably more famous, called Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. That book is about teenagers, as this one is; it is about grief and heartbreak and mental illness, among other things, as this one is; it is an indictment of rape culture, as this one is. So there are enough points of comparison for me to say something valid, I think. Now here’s the difference: that book, compared to this one, is crap. Absolute shlock. The characters are unrealistic, the events are underwhelming and overdramatized, the ending and the book’s overall message were just obnoxious, in my opinion.
This book is none of those things. These characters are some of the most fully-realized and relatable that I have ever read. My favorite thing about this book is that none of the characters – not even the static characters, the foils for the protagonists, the minor characters who only pop into a chapter or two – none of them are permitted to be one-dimensional. The bitchy cheerleader has depths, and real kindness. The golden boy is not all golden: he has flaws, and shortcomings, and he fails, more than once. The villains are recognized as not being that different from the heroes.
And the hero is a psychopath. An entirely sympathetic and fascinating psychopath. I know there are other books that have taken that approach – Dexter, American Psycho, I Am Not a Serial Killer – but this one is by far the best, in my opinion. (Since I’ve been talking about comparisons, let’s be clear: Dexter and American Psycho are entirely different books, different stories, different characters. I Am Not a Serial Killer has some similarities in that it is also a YA book with a teenaged hero; but that book is about self-doubt, and this book is not. At least not from the psychopath’s point of view.) This psychopath, you cheer for. She’s a badass, which was a lot of fun to read. And she volunteers at an animal shelter, and is good to the dogs. I got more than a little upset with the other characters for not being able to relate to her at times, when she’s so clearly right.
But at the same time, because she’s not one-dimensional, the psychopath is not only right. Some of the things she does are terribly wrong, and we know it. This is part of the advantage of McGinnis’s use of multiple point-of-view characters: we get to see all of the major characters from multiple perspectives, both inside and outside themselves, which is part of what makes the characters, and the book (which is entirely character-driven) so good.
And that brings me to the second comparison: the writing. I am a writer. I’ve written for young adults, and I’ve written about violent, mentally ill protagonists. So though I know I shouldn’t, when I encounter a book that is in some small way similar to something that I’ve written, I tend to compare the writing to my own; particularly when it is the first time I’ve read something by a particular author. I don’t do it all the time; when I’m reading something by Steinbeck or Khaled Hosseini or something similar, I don’t even try. But I do think, “I would have done that differently,” or, “I could have written that better.”
I couldn’t have written this book better. I wouldn’t have done it differently, but: there’s no way I could write this well. I actually got a little sad for a while when I was reading it, because this book was so good, so well-written, the characters so genuine and interesting, the action so arresting, that I thought, “Well, what could I add to the literary world when it already has something like this?” I got over myself, of course, but the point is this: this is one of the best pieces of young adult fiction I’ve read. This is one of the better novels I’ve read, period.
So here’s one last comparison: me, to you. I’ve read this book. You haven’t. Which means I’m happier than you. You should fix that. Go get it.
I’m going to go try to learn to write better. And read another book by Mindy McGinnis.