Monday, June 05, 2017


Title: The Roanoke Girls
Author: Amy Engel
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 279

The Prologue of this extremely dark story is written in the first person point of view of Lane. It is here that we come to know of Roanoke, beautiful in a little girl’s fantasy of a princess castle, in a dream she had about her mother’s childhood home, a place she had never seen. But Lane’s mother, Camilla, disabuses her of the fantasy when she asks her, Did you wake up screaming? Was it a nightmare?

That is our first taste of Roanoke.

A month after her mother commits suicide, 15-year-old Lane is sent to Roanoke, in Osage Flats, Kansas, where she meets her maternal grandparents Yates and Lillian Roanoke, and Allegra, her cousin, daughter of her mother’s older sister, Eleanor.

Allegra is exceptionally beautiful, just like Lane, just like all Roanoke girls before her. Like Lane’s mother, she had the same mercurial spirit. Like she was walking a tightrope between light and dark, joy and sorrow.

The Roanoke women consist of Granddad’s sisters, Jane and Sophia; Penelope, Jane’s daughter; Eleanor and Camilla, and Baby Emmeline. Except for Baby Emmeline, who died a few months after she was born, her mouth tasting like breast milk and formaldehyde. At her funeral, the others all had similar stories. 

As Allegra says, Roanoke girls never last long around here…In the end, we either run or we die.

Lane, whose mother had never been good at expressing love, finds a family. Gran shows no affection, but Granddad more than makes up for it, showering the girls with warmth and affection.

Granddad shows tremendous moral rectitude at the dining table, insisting that Allegra cover up, wear something decent.

If only there wasn’t a dark side to him.

In Osage Flats, Lane meets Allegra’s friends Tommy, who has a deep crush on Allegra, and Cooper, with whom Lane embarks on a sexual relationship in which both can’t seem to get out of a vicious cycle of love and hate. 

Cooper too has had a difficult life. His father used to physically beat him, and his mother and sister, and Cooper has had to fight his instincts hard, to prevent himself from turning into a monster like his own father.

Cooper's character is good for Lane, good to her, sometimes better than she deserves.

At first, Lane doesn’t realize just how dysfunctional it is. But then she comes to know the truth, and she runs, leaving Roanoke and its nightmarish hold on her behind.

Running away, she flits from one bad job to another, bearing with her the debris of a broken marriage and broken relationships, unable to make a success of her life. Yet one thing she is sure of: she will never return to Roanoke.

And then one day, 11 years later, Granddad calls her in the middle of the night to tell her that Allegra is missing. She returns to Roanoke, and is caught up in the nightmare again. And yet, she cannot leave till Allegra is found. She feels a sense of guilt for not having taken Allegra with her all those years ago, for not having responded to Allegra’s emails.

Now Lane believes foul play is afoot, even as others insist that Allegra has run away, that it was only a matter of time that she did so, like most Roanoke girls before her.

The book is written in alternate chapters of Then and Now. The Then refers to Lane’s first summer at Roanoke. The Now takes place 11 years later, when she returns to Roanoke. The Now is in present tense, the Then in past tense.

Chapters alternate between Then and Now, each Then helping us understand the Now and vice versa.

Lane, like us, receives hints about the truth from the start, from her grandmother. How all the girls look alike, as if the Roanoke genes were so strong they bulldozed right over anyone else’s DNA. 

Another time her mother looks at Lane and tells her she looks like her father, but when Lane looks in the mirror, she can only see a resemblance to her mother. Yet again, Gran says to Lane, in speaking of the relationship between Lane and Allegra, You two are practically sisters.

We come to know the truth even before the Lane of the Then chapters learned of it. This knowledge comes to us through the third-person past tense accounts of all the other Roanoke girls, Jane, Sophia, Penelope, Eleanor and Camilla.

But we still read on, anxious to know what happened to Allegra in the Now, whether Lane and Cooper will ever get together again, and how Lane figured it out back in the Then.

It’s all very strange, because behind the secrets and the horrible truth, under the shame and anger that beat like a heart, there still lives a terrible kind of love.

The mystery of Allegra's disappearance is also answered in time, strangely by Allegra herself. She scratches words out on wood, her feelings. Inherent drama of knife against wood…leaving a trail of word confetti behind her.

Through the course of the book, we develop a grudging liking for Lane, a woman who is much more comfortable …with cruelty than with kindness. A woman who has never received anything but barbed-wire affection.

At first, we feel upset. We feel Lane's pain, on account of the fact that her mother did not love her the way a mother should, with kisses, and kind words, and hopes for my future. It is only later that she, and we, understands her mother’s love for her.

But redemption is not easy. The worst is when Lane realizes that even while she hated it, a part of her wants it – the destiny it was possible to run from but one I would never escape.

My only grouse against the book was that there was far too much swearing and too much sex. Fortunately, it wasn't gratuitous.

The Roanoke Girls reminds us of how the wounds attained in childhood leave their scars behind all through life.

(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).

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