THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES by Mindy McGinnis
Katherine Tegen Books, 2016
Well, The Female of the Species was just as brutal as everyone says it is, so naturally I thought it was great. All I knew about this book going in was that it’s somehow about rape culture, which it certainly is, but it’s not so much a ‘rape book’ a la Asking For It, Speak, etc., as a teenage vigilante story that could be compared to Hard Candy or Sadie (if I’m allowed to compare it to a book that was published later). So, another successful foray into YA for me this month!
The Female of the Species follows three characters – Alex, the occasionally violent but intelligent loner girl whose sister was murdered, Jack, the popular jock with hidden depths, and Peekay, the preacher’s kid who’s recovering from a bad break-up. Alex is a brilliant character, and she’s ultimately at the center of this novel, tying together these three characters’ disparate plotlines. What I loved about Alex is how her violent streak is neither condemned nor romanticized by the narrative – this is not one of those books that falls victim to very basic ‘murder is wrong!’ moralizing (which, yes, we can all agree that murder is wrong, but reinforcing that point over and over doesn’t make for a terribly interesting story). Instead, McGinnis uses this character to explore a much more intriguing narrative.
To everyone who suggests it’s impossible to discuss rape in media without showing it in graphic detail, I say: read this book. When I mentioned above that this isn’t really a traditional ‘rape book,’ what I meant is that the only rape occurs off-screen before the story begins, and that gets a comparatively small focus in the story. Instead, this deals with those ‘almost’ situations, the grey areas, the insidious ways that rape culture informs teenage social situations in ways we don’t even think about. This is such an astoundingly important book for teenagers to read – like Asking For It, I think it adds a really unique and important slant to this conversation.
But of course, ‘important’ doesn’t really say anything about literary quality – a book can naturally be ‘important’ and terrible – but I thought The Female of the Species was very smart and engaging. This book builds tension brilliantly and culminates in a positively brilliant conclusion. It does take quite a dark turn, but I loved it; I don’t think anything else would have suited the story quite so well.
But I did have problems with this book, and they were essentially: Peekay and Jack. Both of these characters felt more like a construct than an actual human being to me. Jack was the Generic Romantic Hero straight out of any YA novel I’ve ever read, and Peekay’s character just felt so contrived to me. The extent to which being the preacher’s kid (PK = Peekay) informed her entire identity could have been believable to me if we had spent any time examining how that impacted her, or looking at her relationship with religion, but instead it’s reduced to almost a gag – apparently the entire town thinks of her as the preacher’s kid, but we have no concept of what that actually means to her. To this end, occasionally this felt like it fell on the younger end of the YA spectrum than its subject matter would imply; simplicity where there should be nuance. Not every character and theme fell victim to this, of course, but there was no reason for Alex to be so fleshed out at the expense of the other two main characters, and I just would have liked to have seen a bit more depth to each of them.
But for the most part I thought this was very well done and I enjoyed it immensely. Also, aside from the rape and violence that I mentioned, there’s a lot of animal abuse mentioned in this book – this one definitely requires a strong stomach.