Book: “Bonfire” by Krysten Ritter
Publishing Info: Hutchinson, November 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: eAudiobook from the library!
Book Description: Should you ever go back?
It has been ten years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all visible evidence of her small town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career, a modern apartment, and her pick of meaningless one-night stands.
But when a new case takes her back home to Barrens, Indiana, the life Abby painstakingly created begins to crack. Tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town’s most high-profile company and economic heart, Abby begins to find strange connections to Barrens’ biggest scandal from more than a decade ago involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her closest friends—just before Kaycee disappeared for good.
Abby knows the key to solving any case lies in the weak spots, the unanswered questions. But as Abby tries to find out what really happened to Kaycee, she unearths an even more disturbing secret—a ritual called “The Game,” which will threaten the reputations, and lives, of the community and risk exposing a darkness that may consume her.
With tantalizing twists, slow-burning suspense, and a remote, rural town of just five claustrophobic miles, Bonfire is a dark exploration of the question: can you ever outrun your past?
Review: Many people associate Krysten Ritter with her version of Jessica Jones, but for me she’s always going to be the tragic, manipulative, and doomed drug addict Jane Margolis from “Breaking Bad”. These are two heavy characters, and Ritter has the chops to deliver their stories with a lot of complexity, humanity, and darkness. And now you can add ‘author of a heavy and dark thriller novel’ to her list of accomplishments.
I knew that she wrote a book called “Bonfire”, but for whatever reason never got around to picking it up. I’m kind of kicking myself now, given that it has a few elements that I really like, such as small town conspiracy, mean girls, and the potential ill doings of the corporate world. That sure sounds like a healthy mix of ‘things that appeal to Kate’. When I saw that it was checked in in eAudiobook form, I downloaded it and dove right in.
“Bonfire” has some set ups that we’ve seen before in these gritty woman-centered thrillers. Our protagonist, Abby Williams, is returning to her small town of Barrens, Indiana that has only given her bad memories. She was tormented by the resident mean girls, her father was a zealous and abusive drunk, and her mother died when she was a kid. You probably won’t be surprised to find out that she’s still fixated on the past, especially on the disappearance of her ex-best friend turn tormenter Casey. Casey made Abby’s life a living hell, but then vanished off the face of the Earth after graduation, leaving everyone to assume she needed to get out of the small town scene but quick.The longer Abby spends in Barrens, the more unhinged and emotionally compromised she gets, a mix of bad memories, trauma, and her assignment being perhaps more than she anticipated. Throw in a vague love triangle with the former high school golden boy and the former high school outcast, and you have pretty standard fare. I liked Abby quite a bit, as while she was a train wreck (the trope that I’ve long grown tired of in these books), she is also relatable and just enough put together that she didn’t feel flat or two dimensional. I also found her to be a more realistic train wreck than I’ve seen in other books that are similar, as I completely believed her emotional regression when she returns to the town that has left her with so much trauma. She was by far the most complex character of the book, and while I would have liked to have seen a little more oomph from the others, ultimately this is her story. I think that Ritter tried to make a couple of the antagonistic side characters more nuanced, but she didn’t achieve it for me. Perhaps that’s just because they were both so reprehensible based in my own ethical and moral standards that I couldn’t cut them slack, and others would be able to. Not I.
What made “Bonfire” stand out from other books like it is that while the main conflict is, certainly, on a missing person, there is also the theme of corporate wrongdoing and conspiracy. Abby has been sent as a lawyer to investigate Optimum, a large plastics corporation that has brought a lot of money and jobs into Barrens. They have also potentially been illegally dumping waste into the town reservoir, and therein poisoning the citizens. Ritter brings up the fact that a lot of people in town don’t want the investigation, and while it seems like that would be unimaginable she does a really good job of showing how much Barrens, and many small towns, rely on large corporate interests, even if there are terrible costs. Since Barrens was on the brink of collapse before Optimum came in, the question of its future would be up in the air if a huge scandal would drive the corporation into destitution. I really liked how that upped the stakes for all the characters in different ways, and how it shows that some things are bigger than just personal issues between individuals.
“Bonfire” was a mostly satisfying debut novel from Krysten Ritter. Should she continue to write books, I will almost certainly make sure to pick up whatever she comes out with next. You’ve come a long way from your “Gilmore Girls” stint, baby!
Rating 7: While some of the broader themes and tropes we’ve seen before, “Bonfire” had some stand out plot points and a pretty enjoyable protagonist.
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