Review: The Female of the Species

Mindy McGinnis’s A Madness so Discreet caught my attention in 2016, but when her newest YA book, The Female of the Species, was published soon after, I decided to make her newest release my first McGinnis read. After finishing my entire January TBR, I found myself with enough time to pick this one up at the end of January, and was shocked by how much I ended up liking it.

thefemaleofthespeciesAbout the book: Alex Craft has a violent streak that’s been primed to explode by the rape and death of her older sister a couple of years prior. This is how she becomes a murderer. No one knows, though, that this is how she’s coping, which may prove problematic for the boy in her senior class with a crush on Alex. All Jack has ever wanted is to get away from his small, dead-end hometown, but suddenly it has a little more appeal with Alex there, finally paying attention to him. Everyone agrees she’s intense, but Jack is in just the right position to find out how intense she’s really become. And then there’s Peekay, who fights the Preacher’s Kid stereotypes by drinking and swearing. She and Alex become friends while volunteering at the animal shelter, and without really trying, they each help to heal the other from the loss of Alex’s sister and the betrayal of Peekay’s (now ex)-boyfriend. They’re further thrown together when the cop who comes to talk at the school about alcohol and rape statistics singles out Alex and Peekay’s row of seats and claims that one of the girls there will be raped, and that it will likely be someone in the room of students who’s responsible. Sure enough, a party at the Old Church gets a little out of hand and a former student roofies a current one. Our main characters follow their instincts through the dangerous party and the fight that breaks out at the end, turning several lives upside down and paving the way for further trouble.

“Part of me knows that I should have never been admitted, that I should not be walking among these people. People who are able to make friends easily because they don’t first assume everyone is a threat. People who can get through a party without tearing a man’s face off.”

This is a book full of strong characters–especially strong female characters. Alex needs nobody’s help in any situation, and everyone knows it. Some are even afraid of her–as they should be. Peekay is a little smaller and a little more vulnerable, but she certainly knows how to stand up for her friends, her beliefs, and herself. Maybe she’s a little lost, but she has the world’s most supportive and understanding parents, and some great friends who prove just as protective as Peekay herself. She’s certainly earned some good karma by showing kindness and saving lives at the local animal shelter, and it turns out she’s got just as much to learn from the animals as they have to gain from her helping hand.

“You see it in all animals–the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

I did think the violence was a little over the top in some places, though. With Alex, I could understand how one might be driven toward violence, but Peekay’s constant daydreams about harming the girl who stole her boyfriend seemed out of place. The narration tried to describe these as normal fantasies, claiming that thinking about violence can cure someone of actually committing any of those sorts of transgressions. It is possible to be upset with someone, though, without imagining brutally stabbing them or the like. Maybe I’m the only one with a nonviolent imagination, but it didn’t seem normal to me that Peekay was always daydreaming about hurting this other girl, or that those sorts of daydreams are healthy in any way.

Violence aside, there were a lot of factors I loved about The Female of the Species.

One detail I especially appreciated is the way small town life is depicted. I come from a small town myself, and I thought McGinnis did a fantastic job of explaining how life works for high school students in that environment. You really do know everybody else, at least by association; you can’t avoid ex-boyfriends or their new girlfriends. Your feelings about people change as time passes because that’s really the only way to gain new friends and enemies in a place where newcomers are rare and no one ever leaves. You party with the same people you see in class, and when something bad happens, it’s someone you know who does it, and the whole town will know about it practically before you can blink. Rape is always dangerous and disgusting, of course, but in this sort of contained environment McGinnis does an excellent job of showing how difficult it can become to speak out against it and to move on from confrontations. The setting is perfect for the messages McGinnis is emphasizing, and the characters fit into it well:

“I know Alex Craft. I know it in the sense that I could pick her out of my class photos from kindergarten on. I know her because people don’t leave this place and our parents know each other–hell, I’m pretty sure my mom dated her dad. I know her because everyone knows everybody here, and Alex especially because her sister is the only reason a news crew has been in this town, ever.”

The best, best part of this novel, however, is the encouragement it gives to stand up against rape. Even if reporting your attacker would mean getting your friends into trouble for the underage drinking they were doing at the party. Even if the attacker is a friend. Maybe especially in these cases because these are the people who think they’ll get away with it because their victims will be intimidated into silence. Peer pressure is real. Rape is real. It’s important to remind ourselves that there’s something that needs to be done, and something we can do to help, because, as Alex warns,

“…you know what? If you pretend long enough that it doesn’t bother you, pretty soon it actually doesn’t.”

Sometimes that’s a good thing (in context, this phrase was meant to help one of the main characters move on from a difficult breakup) but it can also serve as a reminder: some things we don’t want to end up tolerating out of habit.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. There were moments where I began to feel skeptical because it seemed like this whole town revolved around rape; even in a small town, there’s more going on than that, but with a story as big as this one it would definitely take precedence, and in the end I think McGinnis handled the balance well. Each of the three characters whose perspectives the reader alternates between following is distinct and compelling–the transitions are handled well, and we see just the right details we need from each character. There are times when the narration goes backward a bit to cover the same ground through fresh eyes, but even in these cases all of the new details provided make that awkward shift seem necessary and smooth. This is a book that’s hard to put down, although the narration is so direct that there are also times the reader might want a break to take it all in. No matter how you read it though, please do.

Further recommendations:

  1. The classic Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, of course, is a great read about speaking up about rape even when it’s hard. This one’s a staple. If you haven’t read it yet and already know you like books such as The Female of the Species about fighting back, pick up Speak immediately.
  2. If it’s the strong characters you like best about this book, or the small-town setting, or some of the characters’ dark pasts, be sure to check out Jessica Knoll’s The Luckiest Girl Alive. In this one, Ani is fresh on the scene of adulthood with a cool job and a prestigious boyfriend, but she’s got a secret she’s still holding on to from high school, a secret that might destroy the new life she’s built for herself. This one has some great twists, and some more great underlying messages about feminine strength. If you like The Female of the Species, don’t miss this NA debut.

Coming up next: Last week I finished reading The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts on that one tomorrow. By the end of this week, I should be CAUGHT UP on book reviews, hallelujah! Reviews always seem to take the back burner around the end/beginning of the month while I’m posting plans and wrap-ups, which is fun but also hard to deal with later because I’m usually also reading extra during that time. I started The Sun is Also a Star, my first February read, with high expectations, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts with you about Natasha and Daniel’s one day together in New York City as one of them prepares for deportation and the other prepares for a future career that’s been forced upon him. If you like the strong characters in The Female of the Species, be sure to stay tuned for this next review, too!

What’s your first February read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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