Second Review: January 27, 2019
I’ve just finished another TNG rewatch, and I’ve noticed a lot of things, or been looking at the show, in a different way this time around. That’s what I love about revisiting media I enjoy: you always notice new things. Although I don’t typically re-read a book so close in time to my first reading, the hardcover of Sadie has been calling to me ever since it showed up in September and decorated the shelf in my living room where to-be-read books live. Having read it once, knowing the general twists and turns of the plot now, allows me to spend more time focusing on discovering other elements.
For example, although I mention the timbre of Summers’ writing in my first review, it dominated my experience on this second reading. I have long enjoyed Summers’ novels, but wow, my conviction that Sadie is another level has only been reaffirmed by a re-read. Because when I examine the characters, the way that Summers tells the story, it’s so clear how much work must have gone into figuring out the whole vision for this narrative—not just the parts we see on the page. That is true for most novels, of course. Yet Summers manages to leave the hints of it there without showing the seams of the writing and undermining the whole enterprise.
There’s … there’s just so much happening with these characters. I love the various reactions to people upon learning about Darren’s proclivities, the realistic incredulity of, “He was a God-fearing man,” “he saved my life,” etc. I love the way that Summers gives each of the characters their own little scars and wounds and hurts, to make them like living, breathing people, without making those flaws feel stock or cookie-cutter. May Beth is not a generic grandma/guardian figure. Claire is not a generic druggie single mom. West is not a generic podcast/radio producer. Summers endows each with a clear, strong voice that cuts across Sadie and makes the entire novel cohere into something far more compelling than simply “a story about a lost girl.”
Sadie is lost. Whatever you think of the resolution of this book, Sadie has slipped out of the frame of the picture we put around girls in our society. She knows it too—one of the more subtle elements of heartbreak to this story is the way that Summers weaves these moments throughout Sadie’s narrative where she mulls over what it might be like to be a “normal” girl. To go to high school, be on Instagram, kiss people she wants to kiss, make mistakes that don’t seem like the end of the world. But Sadie can’t have these things, not just because of the circumstances of her childhood and adolescence but because Mattie will never get those things now, and to somehow embrace that life with Mattie gone would be an even grosser betrayal than anything else Sadie feels guilty for (cough, no spoilers). Sadie surrenders herself to her mission, burns herself up in this all-consuming fire of revenge.
And that ending tho.
Again, no spoilers. But the way Summers pulls the rug out from under us is … just so appropriate. I’m sure some people are frustrated. Maybe I’m a little frustrated, but in a good way. I like it—I love it. It’s perfect for what Sadie is doing, which is not just telling the story of Sadie but playing with how we tell stories of girls like Sadie, commenting on it through the almost meta-fictional vehicle of the podcast.
Every so often I come across a book I want to come back to again and again. I want to leach it into my bones, make it a part of me. A Wizard of Earthsea, The Mill on the Floss, and Sophie’s World are a few examples. I didn’t think I would say this on the first reading of it, but Sadie belongs on this list too. No matter how you slice it, this book is achingly beautiful in its heartbreak, yet Summers makes me want to come back and have my heart broken again and again and again.
First Review: April 21, 2018
So I pre-ordered Sadie the moment Courtney Summers announced when it would be out. Over the moon when NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press/Wednesday Books gave me access to the eARC five months ahead of publication! Just so we’re clear, serious fangirling happening, both initially and now as I write this review.
Sadie revolves around two sisters, Mattie Southern and Sadie Hunter. Shortly after thirteen-year-old Mattie is murdered, nineteen-year-old Sadie disappears on a quest for revenge. The narration alternates between Sadie in the first person and transcripts of a podcast hosted by West McCray, who has come out to this small town from the big city in the hopes of learning more about Sadie’s story and maybe even finding her in the process. Some natural questions emerge quickly. Will Sadie find who she’s looking for, and did he actually kill Mattie? Will West find Sadie—and will she still be alive? Will May Beth, Claire, the other residents of Cold Creek get any closure? Yet more important questions blossom in the background. To what lengths will people go to conceal the monsters within, or in their family? Just how far can you run away from, or towards, something before you fall apart? And what, exactly, can you do when the only thing in your life that gives you meaning is brutally ripped away?
On the one hand, Sadie feels a little out of time; like many books set predominantly in that “small town America” milieu, it is filled with set pieces that freeze everything in place: a diner made up like the fifties, suburbs full of the affluent upper-middle class spilling out and blurring the edges of the bigger cities, sketchy bars looking the other way and serving the under age. On the other hand, this is a book very much of the zeitgeist of the 2010s. Sadie does some recon by stalking a fellow teenager on Instagram in a telling scene that reminds us of how much information you can find on someone online.
Similarly, the podcast half of the dual narrative feels very now. Everything about West McCray, from his name to his voice, screams NPR-like radio host, and The Girls podcast is reminiscent of investigative pieces like Serial. I never can visualize characters, but I can totally hear West’s voice in my head, the even-handed way he carefully describes the people he interviews, the places they live, the ways in which they react to the news he tells them. Summers manages to capture the cadence of a podcast perfectly yet in a way that never makes the transcript format imposing or uninteresting.
West himself acknowledges that girls like Sadie disappear almost everyday, that this is a very common story in our society. And it seems like, by adding this podcast layer to the narrative, Summers is making a statement on how these girls’ stories get told. How, once they disappear, if they are not ignored entirely then they are pieced together, rebuilt out of the stories that those they leave behind can tell the media. The picture of Sadie that West provides us is different from the Sadie we get to know from her own voice. Neither is necessarily the authoritative version (more on that below); neither really tells us “the whole story”. But you can sense the ambivalence in West’s voice, the way he is aware that even as he tries to bring attention to Sadie’s story and, by extension, the stories of other girls who have disappeared like this, he also knows he is perpetuating the appropriation of these stories as media spectacle.
There’s a lot happening in Sadie, and I’m still not sure I have unpacked it all in my head, let alone figured out how to articulate it in a review. (I guess I’m just going to have to revisit this when I get the physical copy in September….) There is so much more here than just the story of Sadie, alone on the road, looking for the man who killed Mattie. This is about what people remember about Sadie, the way they think about her. As always, Summers eschews stereotypes and stock characters in favour of rich and deep personalities who don’t always conform to our expectations. Sadie’s mother, Claire, is perhaps the best example of this: it’s easy and perhaps natural for us to want to vilify her for her absenteeism and negligence—yet Summers confronts us with Claire’s humanity, with that brutal reminder that Claire was even younger than Sadie was when she had Sadie.
And so this is book not just about Sadie, or about girls who disappear, but also about how we judge those girls—and indeed, girls and women in general. We judge them for how they act, or don’t act, how they speak, or don’t speak—basically, we find them wanting whenever we want something from them. In this way, Sadie is a tragedy, yes, but it’s a tragedy that cuts to the heart of our society’s hangups about how to talk about girls and women. Sadie’s story has been overlooked until The Girls podcast precisely because she doesn’t conform to the stories we want to tell, like the heartwarming tales of small town girls overcoming adversity and making it big. Sadie is not a stereotype, nor is she a statistic: she’s a young adult driven by a dangerous cocktail of determination and desperation.
Let’s talk about unreliable narrators for a moment, because holy shit is Sadie unreliable, and it’s fantastic. I love the unreliable narrator conceit in general, because when the author nails it, they can do incredible things to the narrative. That’s exactly what happens here. Thanks to the dual narrative structure, Summers can use West’s podcast to reveal details that Sadie doesn’t witness or chooses to omit. There’s a moment close to the end of the book where West interviews a character with whom Sadie crossed paths, and we learn that there was an entire scene between this character and Sadie, in which she reveals something very important, but she completely leaves it out of the story she tells us. I literally did a doubletake while reading and very carefully paged back through this book to the point earlier in the narrative where Sadie interacts with this character, just to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed this scene. Nope. Sadie left it out. And then she goes and lies to us.
As usual, I also just love the quality and timbre of Summers’ writing too. Her descriptions, in particular, just jumped out at me in Sadie as lush and evocative:
Cold Creek arteries out into worn and chipped Monopoly houses that no longer have a place upon the board. From there lies a rural sort of wilderness. The highway out is interrupted by veins of dirt roads leading to nowhere as often as they lead to pockets of dilapidated houses or trailer parks in even worse shape.
This passage would be sublime with just that first sentence. I know exactly what she’s communicating here. OMG, that juxtaposition of “arteries” and “veins” tho—it elevates this to perfection.
Sadie is a such a smooth yet intense read. It builds, quickly and violently, towards an explosive series of confrontations before settling down into a resolution that probably won’t surprise anyone, although certainly some might not be satisfied with it. I, for one, didn’t mind it at all. Once again Summers manages to capture all the awkward in-between moments, the dirt and grit and apposite exhaustion of a single-minded quest. This is Kill Bill stripped away of its grindhouse trappings. This is realism meshed with revenge fantasy, and there are moments where it seems like it’s about to lurch dangerously to one side and spill over, yet Summers manages to keep it all together into a coherent tale.
At one point in the novel, Sadie describes herself:
My body is sharp enough to cut glass and in desperate need of rounding out, but sometimes I don’t mind. A body might not always be beautiful, but a body can be a beautiful deception. I’m stronger than I look.
I’m in love with that phrase, “a beautiful deception”. Paired with “sharp enough to cut glass” and, again, although I don’t actually visualize what Sadie looks like, I feel like I understand what she looks like now.
More importantly, “sharp enough to cut glass” is a perfect way to describe Summers’ own writing, and thanks to the clever narrative structure, Sadie is definitely a beautiful deception. Summers has always written about lost girls, about girls who are also survivors. And I’ve always been here for it. I have loved every one of Summers’ novels that I’ve read, and this one might be the best yet.