Author: Krysten Ritter
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Reading this book, it really helped that I had no idea who Krysten Ritter was. I’m not much of a TV viewer (the Husband and kids have carved out their TV time, which doesn’t leave any for me).
I found Bonfire rather slow to begin with. This bonfire took a while to get crackling, but by the time it was roaring, I found myself settling in, really enjoying myself.
Abby Williams returns to her hometown, Barrens, after 10 years. An environmental lawyer in Chicago, she returns home to build a case against Optimal Plastics, the firm that employs almost everyone in town and is at the heart of its economy. The activities of the firm’s factories are polluting the drinking water at the reservoir, and she seems to have a solid case, if only Optimal didn’t scare off the witnesses.
Abby hopes to solve the case and head back to Chicago, but it won’t be easy. Before long, she finds herself pulled into a scandal that affected girls when she was in high school. Her one-time best friend, Kaycee, and her clique, who used to bully Abby relentlessly, had suffered an illness back then, with terrible symptoms. That case had hit the headlines until the girls revealed that they were faking it.
Now Abby wonders if Kaycee had really been faking it. If her symptoms weren’t in fact a cry for help. If they weren’t related to a seedy game, involving dirty pictures and blackmail, that afflicted young girls back then.
As she ponders over the past, her present seems just as complicated. Her dad, who she’s spent 10 years hating, is suffering from Alzheimer’s’ Disease, and Abby is unable to confront him. Misha, who used to bully her, is now the principal of the school, and seems keen to befriend her.
Also, Brent, Kaycee’s high school boyfriend, now a high-powered Optimal man, seems intent on wooing her again. But Abby finds herself drawn to Dave Condor, the single father and one-time school dropout who runs a local pub.
Abby suspects that Optimal is to blame somehow, that the environmental problems are linked with what is happening with the teens, with what happened to Kaycee a decade ago. But it won’t be easy to discover what they have done wrong and how. In Barrens, you can’t just peel away the present from the past. It’s like trying to get gum out of your hair: the more you try to separate it, the more strands get caught up.
There is a bigger, deeper conspiracy afoot. But what is it? Figuring out the answer will be like the hard stun of a wave you’ve been watching get closer.
The book is written in the first person present tense point of view of Abby. The narrative helps us see the small-town world of Barrens, where everyone knows each other, and only a few dare escape. The very name inspired visions of a dead-end where nothing got better. No wonder most people were so unwilling to offend Optimal.
The book started slow, but I slowly warmed up to it. The plot was well crafted, meticulously drawing the past into the present, tying up loose ends, cleverly and sensitively.
At first it seemed to be all about environmental violations, but then there were tensions, emotional entanglements, and deceit that crept in and the plot got thicker.
There is something about Abby that makes her want to take dangerous decisions, ignore her gut feel, and choose the dangerous option. I always want the things that hurt most.
She is a conflicted person. She ran away from Barrens yet ended up returning, doing the exact opposite of what she wanted to do. Time isn’t a line, but a corkscrew, and the harder I’ve pushed, the more I’ve drilled back into the past.
As a person she seems weak, but as a lawyer, she is skilled, tenacious. She digs in, reading up on old news, about investigations and complaints, payoffs and bribes. If you throw a dart enough times, eventually you’ll hit the bull’s-eye.
She realizes that a lot of the things she took for granted about Barrens and the people who drove her away aren’t true. Everything I learn makes the picture clearer, but also bigger — like climbing out of a ditch only to find myself at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
In time, I began to like Abby, for her perceptiveness, for the fact that she was always an outsider. On the fringe of things, bullied, unloved even at home, by a father who couldn’t see beyond his religion, and a mother who couldn’t because she was dying.
It’s the richness of the prose that will stay with me. Sample this:
The room slows its turning, like a merry-go-round reaching the end of its cycle.
Loneliness turns from an ache to a hard punch. I think of all those rose-cheeked children, all those families at their dining room tables making wish lists: snowglobes of normalcy.
I know that kind of laughter: like the hooting of an owl sighting a mouse. Sharp. Predatory.
Like all prey everywhere, he knows when there’s danger in the air.
About Kaycee: The kind of girl you could only get close to the way you have to creep sideways toward a wild animal, not making eye contact, so it won’t run away.
About herself: I’m a fish, lashing out in its last moments still tethered to a hook.
In fact, each of the chapters or scenes were ended in a manner that forced the reader into contemplation of a mood or a phrase. I liked that.
Nor does the author feel compelled to wave a magic wand and make everything well for Abby. The past is just a story we tell. And all stories depend on the ending. And endings are what we make of them.
There is no happy-ever-after for Abby, but there is a reconciliation, an understanding, a sense of peace. That’s the funny thing about home: you’ve always arrived just as soon as you stop checking the compass.
(I received an ARC from First to Read).