Where do I even begin with Mary Kubica’s debut novel, The Good Girl? Touted in its back-cover copy as written “in the tradition of Gillian Flynn and Tana French,” The Good Girl does bear some similarities to Gone Girl and The Likeness in that it is certainly a book and it certainly is filled with pages.
But that’s about it.
I don’t mean to be glib, though, so let me give you the gist.
The Good Girl is a thriller set in Chicago and centered on the kidnapping of twentysomething school teacher (and daughter of a prominent judge), Mia Dennett. Detective Gabe Hoffman along with Mia’s mother Eve enter into a desperate search to find her. The story is told from alternating points of view, flashing forward and backward in time from chapter to chapter. It attempts to be a type of “whydunnit” in the style of The Secret History, but with the pop-culture feel of Gone Girl.
None of this on its face is a necessarily bad idea. The unique storytelling provides some freshness in what could be a potentially stale or straightforward concept, and the general plot could easily make for an entertaining beach read. But when The Good Girl starts going off the rails, it jumps off the tracks at full speed.
Kubica’s descriptions of Chicago read as if told from a complete outsider’s perspective. I found some of the description tedious, and in one or two cases, just plain incorrect. This would become a kind of running theme with the novel. There are even several excruciating scenes meant to depict a modicum of detective work, but which actually just define basic terms and ideas (i.e. a page-long definition of the word “hypnosis”) at length. More than just uninventive and dull to read, I actually found some of these passages a little insulting to my intelligence. But still, I plugged along.
Unfortunately, The Good Girl became more than just a mediocre story–it morphed into a sludge-like cocktail of sexism and racism. It got to the point that I hated every second I was reading it. I dreaded picking up the book, knowing I would enjoy nothing.
To be clear, I don’t mean to say that the characters in the story were sexist or racist (though that is certainly the case as well). That’s never an inherent problem. A few years ago I read Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, which is from the perspective a completely vile human being. But that character is used to explore the complex realities of post-apartheid South Africa. The novel knows that the racism and violence it depicts is deplorable, and we, as readers, feel this too.
That story, despite being much more graphic, was much easier to stomach than The Good Girl, which is subtly complicit. South Side Chicago neighborhoods and later, the nearby town of Gary, Indiana are consistently disparaged, their large black populations negatively highlighted (as if the mark of a shitty neighborhood were merely the fact that black people lived there), all without any understanding or empathy. And while those areas do indeed suffer from higher rates of poverty and crime and do have a mainly African American population, Kubica treats the issue as if it’s a given that such places would be the only refuge of criminal activity. As if all crime stems from there, and there alone. We never see these neighborhoods from the eyes of their inhabitants, only through the negative judgments of our protagonists.
Worse yet, The Good Girl has only a single non-white character: Dalmar. Dalmar is an African immigrant whose skin is described as “black, like the blackest of black bears, like the blubbery skin of a killer whale, an alpha predator with no predators of their own”–not exactly a flattering portrait. On top of that, he is, of course, also a suspected rapist, a murderer, and the leader of a dangerous crime syndicate. He is given no other qualities.
Again, it isn’t the fact that Dalmar is a villain that’s troublesome. It’s the way the writing ties his blackness to his villainy, and it’s the complete lack of any other non-white character to act as any kind of comparison point that makes this more than just unfortunate, but genuinely upsetting.
In fact, when black people appear in the background of Kubica’s novel, their blackness seems to be the only thing she points out, and it’s pointed out repeatedly. If their skin color is all that matters, how can they even begin to feel like real people? How can they be anything but set decoration for an order-less and violent world? It’s utterly appalling.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
Her treatment of women fares no better.
Every woman (with a substantial role) in the book is a mother. The only women that get empathy are mothers. The only woman consistently described as bitchy is also constantly compared to her father and is childless. Women’s beauty is emphasized and prioritized. In an off-hand comment, Detective Hoffman makes light of the potential abuse of teens by their teacher–regarding it as “complaints by numerous teenyboppers,” which is disgustingly glib.
A chapter-long tirade against abortion even makes its way into the book, which would merely be frustrating to read if it were simply a character’s opinion, but everything in the novel reinforces this belief. The construction of the plot means that we never hear Mia’s point of view until the very end, which means most of this discussion happens without knowing or considering what she wants. I find this extremely problematic, regardless of whether I support a pro-choice agenda or not. What does Mia think and why? Shouldn’t that matter at all? As is, the bulk of the justification for the anti-abortion agenda comes from Mia’s mother, with Mia just sitting along for the ride.
Her kidnapping is also infuriatingly romanticized. At the end, the book takes great pains to insist that she suffered from no stockholm syndrome and that her kidnapper who constantly threatens to murder her and who strikes her repeatedly is “misunderstood,” which ends up making violence against women look like some kind of sick foreplay.
END OF SPOILERS
By the time the mystery is resolved, I couldn’t have cared less. I was fed up with the book and with the sloppy, careless writing.
I don’t demand that a novel reach epic heights of literary greatness to be enjoyable, but I do ask that it contain a basic sense of human decency, that any offensive ideas be written with a purpose. What I cannot tolerate, perhaps even more than thinking that she believes these things, is the thought that the author was merely far too lazy to consider the power of her words.
What a complete waste.
The Good Girl is published by Harlequin and goes on sale July 29.