The Female of the Species
By: Mindy McGinnis
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.
While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.
But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.
So does Peekay, the preacher’s kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad’s job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex’s protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.
Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.
Just glancing at the cover, I thought I was going to be picking this book up for a bit of light reading about things happening in high school. After reading the synopsis, I quickly revised my thinking to ‘OK, maybe this is going to be a little more complex’. A few pages in, and I realized that The Female of the Species is as if Susie Salmon’s little sister grew up and took Lisbeth Salander for a role model.
First off, trigger warnings for violence and sexual assault. If you’re sensitive to these issues, I’d think twice about reading The Female of the Species.
That being said, the main point of the book, and the real strength of it, is that it confronts these issues head-on and with plenty of rage. I don’t know how to describe it, except that maybe it’s the wake-up call we all need when it comes to sexual assault, rape and violence against women. Especially in high school, I think these things don’t get enough attention.
This book is primarily character-driven. You have Peekay, the Preacher’s Kid, who’s trying to balance between her basic goodness and the world of high school. You have Jack–sports star, high school stud and almost-Valedictorian. And then you have Alex Craft, the near-psychopathic loner girl. There are several other characters who surround them all and contribute to the story, such as Jack’s on-and-off lover Branley and Peekay’s friend Sara. What fascinated me was how Mindy McGinnis started off with easily understandable stereotypes and then delved into the characters until they became something more. She gives complexity to the star jock, the lone lesbian, and the school slut, to name just a few.
Although it’s not overt, the book is shaped by sexual violence. Alex’s backstory is that her sister was kidnapped, raped and murdered. This act has shaped her profoundly, but also shaped the town–Jack feels regret, for instance, for his behavior when Alex’s sister’s body was found, and his regret is part of the reason he’s driven to talk to Alex. But over the course of the book we realize that almost every female character has had some encounter with or realization of sexual violence towards women. And even more of the book is driven by the other characters reactions to Alex’s violent nature.
Alex is, by far, the most fascinating character of the book. She’s coldly methodical and intensely emotional, understanding and unforgiving, kind and merciless. Above all, she is, as she says, vengeance. It was so interesting to see her going from intensely private loner to someone who has a strong circle of both male and female friends. But like I said, it was more interesting to see how the other characters reacted to the realization of her violent nature. We, as the reader, are aware early on that she tortured and executed her sister’s killer, although it’s not explicitly stated. After she disfigures an older man in front of half of the school, everyone has to make their peace with Alex’s violence and the motivations behind it.
And yet, Alex also serves to pull everyone together. When Peekay jumps at Branley for stealing her boyfriend, Alex points out that the true person at fault is the ex-boyfriend, not Branley. She also rebukes Peekay for judging Branley for her sexuality. Similarly, when Jack tries to make a big deal about ‘it’s OK that we’re not having sex and that you’re a virgin’, Alex indicates it would be a much bigger deal if he weren’t OK with their situation. When she and Jack break up, Alex recognizes the value in the support Peekay and Sara offer her.
This honestly just makes the points where McGinnis points out inequality all the more devastating. Alex instills not solidarity, but respect, among the girls at the high school. But every so often, there’s a phrase like ‘I live in a world where not being molested as a child is considered luck’, and you’re confronted with how women respecting each other just isn’t enough.
And yet, there’s a subtle critique as well, that becomes more powerful towards the end. It’s all well and good to feel the female rage, but meeting violence with violence isn’t the answer. Although we may all want to hunt down and viciously kill the men who hurt women, the better answer is to FIX THE SYSTEM. To make men aware of how much damage they do even when they touch or kiss us without permission, and how much more damage some of their number do. To get women to stop shaming each other and to stand together. To stop being seen as dolls, or prey, and to start being seen as actual human beings.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us. An advanced copy was provided in exchange for an honest review.