Book review: The Female of the Species, Mindy McGinnis

A crime. A horrific punishment. Multiple points of view. The Female of the Species takes on issues highly relevant to contemporary girlhood, but it does so in an interesting, innovative, and ultimately very painful way. It’s an excellent read, like McGinnis’ other work, but it’s not for the faint of heart — pick it up when you’re feeling ready to delve into sex crime, the dark elements of the teenage psyche, and violence. And maybe have something fun and fluffy for when you’re done so you can clear your mind a bit, yeah? FYI, this review is mildly spoilery (it discusses plot points revealed almost immediately, and definitely doesn’t delve much further than that, I promise!).

Alex Craft is a high school student with a secret. Not the death of her sister in a brutal crime that captivated her entire town and catapulted her into fame, but what happened next. You see, after Alex watched her sister’s murderer get away with the crime, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She’s unflinching about it and has zero regrets — for her, it was just something that needed to be done, but it’s coloured her life ever since.

And now, the barriers around her are breaking down as she befriends Peekay and starts dating Jack, an athlete who struggles with how to relate to her not just because of her somewhat standoffish persona, but because of the role he played in the discovery of her sister’s body. As she allows herself to soften around the edges and lets actual friends into her life, Alex finds immense rewards in friendship, but she also finds out about the dark side of allowing yourself to care for people. Sometimes, you get hurt.

The text revolves around a lot of incidents that, while they might appear separate, all tie together. There’s attempted rape, and murder, and a series of catastrophic events, in true YA tradition. But along the way, The Female of the Species really delves into a lot of complicated and challenging stuff. Lots of YA has handled sexual assault, and we’ve had a few teen vigilante murderers, but these things twisted together in really interesting ways here, making for a really intense read.

One of the things that intrigued me most about this narrative was Alex’ feeling that she’s kind of innately driven to violence, in traits she thinks she inherited from her own father, who left when she was young. She tells herself that he left to avoid allowing something terrible and violent to happen, and she fears that she’s following him down the same path, that she has rage she simply cannot control. Alex’ violent tendencies brought up some really interesting things for me as a reader, and they also evoked some really important ethical questions about the responsibility of authors to their audiences.

Alex firmly believes that violence is rooted deep within her and there’s nothing to be done about it, and this feeds her sense of inevitability and irredeemability: She believes that she is fundamentally someone who cannot change. Those kinds of violent tendencies, paired with coldness towards her victims, offset by her extreme gentleness and kindness towards animals, sound a lot to me like some psychological issues she’s struggling with. The fact that these issues don’t get resolved at all is an important part of the narrative, but it also presents the natural question: How many readers feel like Alex does, and come away from the book with the same sense of inevitability?

It’s not McGinnis’ job to tell her readers to go to therapy, either directly or by completely changing the plot of her book so Alex goes to therapy and magical wonderful things happen as she learns how to address her mood issues and find a path out of violence. This is the kind of text that gets labeled an ‘issue book’ with all the accompanying baggage about how the author is supposed to turn it into a Very Special Moment, and that’s a disservice to both authors and books. McGinnis was here to tell a story about sex crimes and violence and the way we relate to each other, and she did. It didn’t serve her characters or the story to insert special object lessons for readers, so she shouldn’t have done it.

At the same time, though, I almost feel like this read needs to be accompanied by an external source of discussion. It’s the kind of book that would make an absolutely fantastic classroom conversation piece, especially in small towns like the ones Alex lives in, where the things she struggles with really ring true to experience — the bad things behind closed doors no one talks about, the unwillingness to report for fear of making people angry, the incredibly complicated political machinations overshadowing everything. In a classroom or a similar moderated setting, people can talk about what drives Alex’ violence, and how she copes with it, and if there are perhaps better choices available, like, uh, counseling.

The text is an object lesson in the cost of vengeance, but readers dealing with emotions like Alex’ — which commonly onset at around her age, and seem insurmountable and impossible to deal with — could probably use some deeper engagement with her character.

This is not, however, McGinnis’ responsibility (though perhaps a note in the afterward wouldn’t go amiss). The thing that really troubles me about the book as a reader is the issue of an unreported sex crime, and a character expressing guilt over it. Yes, people absolutely 100 percent do experience a sense of guilt over not reporting sexual assaults, and a lot of that is driven by rape culture. I really wish there had been more pushback here, more of a subtle stress that, guess what, if you don’t report a crime and someone goes on to try again, that’s not on you: That’s on your assailant, because they’re the ones that chose to attempt to rape someone else. Not you. Okay? If you don’t report a sexual assault, rape, or attempted sex crime, you’re not a bad human being, and you shouldn’t be punished for it.

Image: Foggy Woods, Matthias, Flickr