Reviewed by Kate Schefer
Lane Roanoke is weeks shy of 16 when her mother Camilla commits suicide, and Lane can’t help but feel relief. For as long as she could remember, her mother was a volatile, emotional woman who seemed to display her love for Lane in the form of hate and anger. She didn’t speak often of her childhood home, Roanoke, but when she did, she described it as a “nightmare.” Lane will not understand why until she is sent to live with her grandparents and cousin Allegra later that summer, at the family house in Kansas. Located in the country outside of Osage Flats, Roanoke is a massive estate, whose architecture was inspired by every type of house, it seems. Gran built additions after each child, and she had four daughters (who in turn had more daughters); the house, even in its mostly empty state, feels alive, like it’s pulsing with secrets. Lane will discover them all over the course of that first summer at Roanoke, and a second one a decade later, when she returns to search for the missing Allegra.
The Roanoke Girls is told in chapters that alternate between Lane’s first and last summers at Roanoke, with brief interludes from the perspective of departed Roanoke girls. Every Roanoke girl (and they’ve all been girls) has either died or run away, and Lane is the only one to ever return, and she only does so at the bidding of her Granddad Yates, the only male of the family. He was always the more doting of the grandparents, with Lillian rarely showing any devotion to or love for the girls, even her own. But Lane soon learns why there is a stark contrast between the two, first at the end of her teenage summer, and again, for darker reasons, before she leaves for the last time. Interspersed with the family drama is Lane’s individual drama, particularly with Cooper, her teenage fling that she abandoned all those years ago without a goodbye. Reuniting with him is more difficult than she expected; he took those years to mature, and she spent hers alternately dwelling on and running from her past.
Lane is absolutely a complex character, and Engel took care to rationalize her emotionality and other shortcomings, though I will say she was at times too melodramatic for me. This is advertised as a thriller, which is understandable: there’s murder and intrigue and secrets, and the pacing and revelations are perfectly timed. But when it came to moments of internal struggle, there was a bit too much “woe is me” and overreactions for my taste. I felt that Engel didn’t wholly trust the reader yet, and could lay it on a little thick at times. But on the whole, the writing was beautiful, and rather inspired. Taking place in Kansas in the summer, the story is wont to discuss the heat at length, and I was impressed by Engel’s ability to show the effects of the heat with new and varied language, in a way that most authors cannot. I thought the supporting characters (Allegra, Tommy, Cooper) were strong and sympathetic, and all played important and independent roles. I struggled to understand what Charlie and Sharon (the family help) were meant to bring to the story, besides acting as foils to the grandparents.
Aside from the aforementioned issues, this book is honestly a solid literary thriller. One of the benefits of the alternating timelines is that the “family secret” is let out fairly early, and that no longer becomes the driving force you set out to believe. Instead, Engel shifts the focus throughout to develop new plot lines and twists, and reveals those throughout. It is satisfying to come upon new information once in a while, whetting your appetite, but the climax is not diminished by this. It is just as engaging as one would hope, and gives the book the heft and substance it deserves. While this was definitely an easy read (I breezed through it in a few days), it wasn’t dumbed down or cliché like others in its genre can be. It is dark, surprising, and wholly rewarding. This is best enjoyed somewhere you can keep both feet on the ground, or (like I did) lying in bed, late at night. You will find yourself simultaneously wanting to be a Roanoke Girl, and thanking the universe that you aren’t.
Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Crown. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.