Beautiful but wild teen Nica Baker is found dead, raped and shot in a graveyard just off campus from her prestigious Connecticut boarding school. In her wake, she leaves a family in chaos. Her mother leaves and abandons them to pursue further academic and artistic achievement, her father descends into alcoholism, and her older sister Grace slips hard into drug addiction. But while Grace manages to get clean after blacking out on pills and waking up in a strange bed, a surprise pregnancy from the night derails her life. She drops out of college, moves back home, and rededicates herself to solving her sister’s murder.
It’s a story you’ve probably seen a thousand times: A young woman lives fast, dies young, leaves a beautiful corpse. What Lili Anolik offers in Dark Rooms focuses less on originality and more on plumbing the depths of her characters’ depravity. Grace’s relationships, her sister’s friendships, it was all based on a web of a thousand small betrayals that all add up to the monstrous death of a young woman. Anolik throws a lot of twists at you throughout the book, and while most miss, the ones that do hit land with the force of a freight train. A late-book reveal, for instance, about Grace and Nica’s mother found me gasping audibly. Indeed, while the book is fairly uneven, Anolik found a genuinely chilling character in Grace’s mother, who brings every scene she’s in vividly, horrifyingly to life.
But where Dark Rooms works, basically, as a character study, it largely fails as a thriller or a mystery. While it borrows some of the rhythms and a lot of the tropes from those genres, there’s never really any danger. Most of the cast likes Grace, and they’re oddly willing to open up to her about horrible things they’ve seen or done often with very little provocation. In some ways, Anolik’s book reminded me of Tana French’s groundbreaking In the Woods in its combination of gruesome crime and small-town conspiracy told by a narrator who is all too easy to hate. But French gave us more of a sense of who her characters were, more room for them to breathe outside the cloud of suspicion, which made her revelations all the more powerful. In Dark Rooms, everyone has a dark secret and everyone is a suspect to start off with, which drains a lot of the tension from the investigation, and a lot of the interest from the cast.
Dark Rooms still works, to a degree, thanks to Grace. While Grace is an immensely frustrating character, weak-willed and self-loathing, she’s also a well-rounded one, and what leeway I grant the book, particularly regarding the fairly foul resolution to Grace’s rape-and-pregnancy subplot, comes from the strength of Anolik’s characterization of her and her voice. But is two strong characters enough to hold up an entire novel? Well, that depends on what you read for. Dark Rooms has some truly fantastic elements, but it lacks the restraint necessary for compelling drama, the pace for melodrama, and the tension of a solid mystery. Genre fans will likely leave disappointed, but folks who don’t mind a nice, seedy wallow should find something to love.
Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can read more of his writing at Geek Rex and follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by HarperCollins Publishers. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.