Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Picked this up off the New Books shelf at the library and decided to take a chance. As I’ve said before, this is why I love libraries. I have no interest in heavy metal, and the back cover copy is somewhat vague in communicating what this book is about. But what’s the worst that could happen? I don’t like it, and I have to return in a few weeks. Libraries are awesome for letting you take a chance on a book you’re not sure about—and sometimes, as in the case of Boring Girls, you’re pleasantly surprised.
Huuuuuuge trigger warning, though, for rape, and for this review as well.
I’m not sure I can do this book justice, because any attempt to summarize what happens is going to make Boring Girls sound … well, boring. This is a novel that manages to be dark and disturbing but also feel a little clichéd. When Rachel’s parents confront her about her new taste for death metal, she says: “You don’t know the sort of things that I like. You don’t get what I am.” And I couldn’t help but hear that in an incredibly overwrought teen girl voice. It’s like, you did not just write that, did you?
I’d like to give Sara Taylor the benefit of a doubt, however, and mark down such campiness as an intentional counterpoint to what might otherwise be a rather horrific book. I mean, we’re talking about two characters vowing to get famous so they can kill people very publicly in order to get revenge. It’s simultaneously dark and somewhat laughably unrealistic. The tension between these two elements is what kept me reading far past what should have been my bedtime.
At its core, this is a book about double standards—hence the title. Rachel’s parents would love for her to be a boring girl, because boring girls—nice girls, good girls—don’t get into trouble, don’t make trouble, and otherwise live boring, nice, normal lives. When Rachel butts heads with authority figures, it’s over her attempts at expressing herself. She finds solace in metal because its’s a subculture built around the idea of being an outcast, of throwing up a defensive barricade of shocking obscenity to keep the rest of the world out. But even within this world, she keeps running up against that double standard, the gatekeepers who don’t think girls belong in metal or the “assholes” for whom metal is simply another way to indulge their cravings for power, sex, etc.
So Taylor tears down this idea that there is any one perfect refuge from abuse. She sets Rachel up for disappointment—you just know that when she gets the opportunity to meet Balthasar it’s not going to go well. I didn’t quite think that it would go as far as rape. Unlike some other depictions of rape as plot devices, however, Boring Girls treats rape as the serious and devastating experience it is. And I appreciate, in particular, how Taylor shows that there is no one universal reaction to being raped. Fern shuts down, pulls away from the rest of the world, and her band members notice but can’t understand why. Rachel, on the other hand, uses the rape as a way of kindling that ever-present rage that has always seemed to lurk beneath the surface.
What I found really interesting, however, is the role reversal that happens just before the climax. When Fern has the opportunity to confront another rapist, she breaks out from her shell. Suddenly it isn’t Rachel who is proposing murder: Fern is the one leading the charge, and again in the cemetery. As Fern regains her energy and transforms into a somewhat manic, quite frankly scary person, Rachel finds herself less interested in interaction. When they finally have the opportunity to strike against DED, Rachel—the one who proposed the revenge plot in the first place—does not want to go through with it, following Fern more out of friendship and loyalty than a commitment to the revenge they both craved.
Part of me was disappointed, at first, by the ending and the lack of closure we get around Rachel and what happens to her in the aftermath of the murders. That being said, I can appreciate why Taylor might have chosen to go this route. There is a certain fragility to Boring Girls—as I said above, the plot isn’t exactly realistic. This is not a story one should examine closely, in minute detail, in the hopes of making sense of it all. More to the point, one of the hardest things about writing is deciding where the story should end (or begin). Narratives aren’t like real life. In deciding to end the story just after the culmination of Rachel and Fern’s revenge, Taylor foregrounds this as the defining act of the novel.
This act catalyzes the rest of the story. Everything that leads up to it suddenly takes on a new meaning. Even though we know, broadly, what is going to happen, the details and emotions that Rachel relates alter our understanding of everything that went before. I love it when a book does that, when the ending allows you, motivates you, to go back and leaf through previous pages with fresh insight.
Ultimately this is a character study. Taylor shows us how a combination of things Rachel does and things people do to her lead her to this tragic act. Through a rage disguised as justice and a stark, unforgiving sense of clarity, Rachel formulates a plan that she knows she can’t come back from. But she is OK with that. She makes her peace with it—at least intellectually, until the actual visceral moment approaches and she finds Fern has the will where she does not. She makes her peace with it, because DED took away from her the one thing she thought she had made hers: the safety of metal. The rape didn’t just take away her sense of physical autonomy; it shuttered, once and for all, any hope that Rachel could feel welcome or included in this space that was supposed to be marked for outcasts of all stripes. With literally nowhere left to go, Rachel had no reason left to care.
Boring Girls is a novel both bleak and sympathetic. Rachel is a layered character: at times she is as naive as any teenager, and she certainly is as much an asshole as all the other people she applies that label to. This is a story of the rawest of human emotions being put to a purpose dark yet somehow fitting. It is not an uplifting book, but in some ways it is a rewarding one.