This book was praised to high-heavens, thus giving me high hopes. It is all over “best of” lists, there are tons of snarky little quips in write-ups, and the paperback features pull-quotes from Margaret Atwood and Karen Russell. I was ready to be ruined by this book…
…it fell flat, as so many pumped-up things often do.
Samantha, an unreliable narrator if ever there was one, is a post-grad MFA fellow at Warren College, a told-but-not-shown sPoOoOoKy college somewhere in New England. There’s some initial talk of Lovecraft, madness, and Lovecraftian madness, but that talk meanders without really going anywhere. This is her second year in The Workshop, and Samantha is plagued by a den of Mean Girls that she calls Bunnies. The Bunnies also call themselves Bunny within their clique-cum-coven (oh my goodness- WARREN College is full of BUNNIES?!). There is something not quite right about the Bunnies; they appear to be a sort of infantilized hive-mind of Heathers-esque mean girls, but they must be so much more. Right?
Eh, not quite. Samantha is “dark” and “edgy”, with an overactive imagination (*obvious reveal siren*), and she is most definitely nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs (one of my MOST HATED tropes of ALL TIME)- but the other girls are also hastily smashed together traits and tropes. She labels the Bunnies with her own names: Cupcake, Creepy Doll, Vignette, and The Duchess. The attributes given to the Bunnies do not mesh with what is presented; they are individuals with different aims, goals, and styles, but the things that they do and enjoy as a group do not fit any of their personalities. Samantha, or possibly Awad herself, has smashed together every bit of internalized misogyny one can find on the internet into a group of four women that she HATES. Hate them or not, they have their eyes on her, and when she is drawn into their witchy world she cannot stop herself, not even with the help of her one friend *siren again*, an art-school dropout who hates Warren, hates the Bunnies, and possibly hates Samantha as well.
This could have been a great short story: outsider pulled into insider clique, things get weird, animals explode, grand ambiguous ending. Awad gets lost and mired down in the details. There is a ton of filler, many walks back through ideas already solidified, and pages of “what? huh? what? why me?” that could be pared down into a mean little piece. Instead, this book meanders into the truly weird but spends most of the running time walking in circles. This is particularly frustrating, as this book is set in an MFA program. If you write about being a writer, follow your own critiques! It’s particularly frustrating because Awad can be great! Her descriptive language is think and ripe; you can smell the world her characters inhabit. You can feel the physical surroundings. There are some truly creative explosions of gore- unfortunately they are locked into a mediocre story. I’ve rounded up from a 2.5 to 3 just for the language, and I was gripped immediately upon starting this novel, but my interest and patience crumbled to dust by the end.
If you would like a truly creepy and nightmare-inducing story around cults, rabbits, and ancient evils, then I recommend you seek out Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere. It’s been a few years since I read it, but there is a particularly gruesome scene that pops into my mind far more frequently than I care for!
Note: I do not have any rabbit skulls hanging about, so this raccoon skull will have to do!