Firstly, I’m nearly certain that I would have given this four stars unreservedly had I not done the audio version. YMMV, obviously, on all books. But here, the audio really pulled me out of the story. I’ll explain.
So this book is about bad things that happen to girls, and it’s split into two parts that alternate every other chapter. The first is a fake podcast with a host who is trying to track down the missing 19 year old, Sadie Hunter, after a family friend contacted his podcast show for help. Sadie’s thirteen year old sister, Mattie, was murdered and she herself disappeared soon after. The host, West, tracks Sadie’s progress cross country, months behind her, trying to figure out why she left and what happened to her. We are treated to the full podcast treatment, with interviews from people who knew Sadie, the cops, news broadcasts, and people West tracks down. The podcast is called “The Girls.”
The second part of the book is from Sadie’s POV, in the first person. We join her on journey soon after she leaves, where she states pretty much up front that she’s off to find the man who murdered her sister, and kill him. She follows cold clues across the country, trying to track down a man she hasn’t seen in years.
So, I did like this. I will say that up front, because I am about to say a lot of things that didn’t work for me.
The idea of the fake podcast was so intriguing. I listen to A LOT of podcasts. The format, the ambient noise, the way podcast hosts speak, and the kinds of production values they have are burned into my brain. I love meta fiction, and I love when books can pull off a faux-trans media approach. Unfortunately (and this is not on the author at all), in the audio version, I don’t think they pulled it off. It did NOT sound like a podcast. It sounded like someone reading me a book, which is what this was. They also made the unfortunate choice to use a different voice actor for every unique character, and some of the voice actors they chose were awful. Like, really, this is what you think humans sound like? The news broadcasts and police interviews were particularly egregious. It was also glaringly obvious that each characters’ parts were recorded separately, even the parts where the host was supposed to be having an informal conversation. There was just this constant disconnect.
The guy voicing the host did an all right job, better at the end than the beginning, but he, too sounded like an actor reading me a book most of the time, instead of doing whatever it is real podcast hosts do. They also tried to add in fake ambient noise, like crickets chirping or road sounds, but it sounded fake as hell. Sorry sound production team, you didn’t do great here. I just kept thinking, how much better would this have been if they would have hired a real podcast team to produce those sections? It would have been so cool! As it was, I was unable to enjoy listening to those sections for the most part because they sounded so wrong to my ears. Almost immediately I wished I would have done the hard copy, so I could picture Ira Glass or Sruthi Pinnamaneni or Jad Abumrad or someone else great at podcasts doing it instead.
On top of that, and I’ll guess I might never know if this is the case because of how much the audio turned me off, but I’m not sure how effective the choice was to have the podcast directly cover events we’ve already seen from Sadie’s eyes. There wasn’t often any new information presented, although towards the end Summers makes use of the format to get perspective from outside of Sadie’s experience on the same events. But a lot of the time, West is just following in Sadie’s footsteps talking to people we’ve already seen Sadie talk to, saying nearly the same thing they told Sadie. Take this complaint with a grain of salt, though, like I said. I was already grumpy about everything to do with these sections so my judgment about how well they worked is very clouded.
I enjoyed the Sadie chapters very much, though. Well, I say enjoyed, but what I mean is those worked for me in a way the podcast chapters didn’t. It helps that the narrator for Sadie’s sections did a good job inhabiting the character (though they did have other characters voiced by other narrators, which was very awkward). Sadie is beyond determined in her focus, and she makes some real mistakes along the way that leave you very worried for her, both her physical safety and her mental wellbeing. The thing that struck me most about Sadie, though, wasn’t her revenge mission, but how the interactions she has with people along the way show how what has happened in her life has completely skewed the way she relates to other people.
Last thing. When I was almost done with the book, I kept thinking that I had no idea how it was going to end. Usually I can get a feel for the arc of a story, what kind of ending it’s going to be, but here I couldn’t, and that was actually reflected in the ending, which in my opinion was a non-ending. The last time we hear from Sadie SPOILERS it’s right in the middle of her confrontation with Keith/Darren/Jack. We hear what happens to Jack (he dies of sepsis) but we never find out what happens to Sadie. The fake podcast ends on a note, hoping that Sadie made it out alive and is living a new life somewhere, but it’s ultimately left up to the reader to interpret as they want, whether she is alive or not, and if she’s alive, where she is and what she’s doing. her voice is utterly cut out of the end of the novel END SPOILERS. This annoyed me. I’m a fan of ambiguous endings in certain situations, but for whatever reason, this one stuck in my craw. I needed more from it. We spent so much time with Sadie in her head, to have the final version of her story written by the dippy West McCrae just felt wrong to me. I get what she was going for, but I don’t think it worked for me.
All in all, I’m glad I read this, but I definitely should have done the hard copy, and I’m feeling very ambivalent about the ending.