Had things turned out differently, I might be standing at the bar next to Kaycee Mitchell, bitching about work and kids and husbands, slugging down a couple of vodka crans and sneaking a cigarette when we got drunk enough.
The late film critic Roger Ebert wrote of a director’s debut: “He’s shown that he knows how to make a good movie. Now it’s time for him to make a better one.”
I had that same feeling reading Krysten Ritter’s debut novel, Bonfire. It’s a good novel, but it’s hard to read it and not see where it could have been better. But it’s the kind of not-quite-great that makes you excited and intrigued to see what she’ll come up with next, such is the breadth of her talent. So here’s hoping she’ll make her literary ambitions a priority amid her busy acting schedule.
So let’s start with the good stuff. First off, Ritter can write. She gets no celebrity handicap here. She has good instincts about what to leave out of a novel, something few people innately know and most others discover only through a lot of excruciating trial and error. (I like the idea that she agonized over draft after draft during downtime on the set of her hit TV series, Jessica Jones, though I have no idea if that’s actually true.) Her sentences are not just clean, but even in tone, and they have that special glide that makes the pages turn.
The story is as ambitious as it is interesting, too. Abby Williams, who ran far away from the hick town of Barrens, Indiana before the ink was dry on her high school diploma, is drawn back nearly a decade later. The occasion: her law firm is investigating claims that the town’s dominant employer, Optimal Plastics, is polluting the local drinking water and causing some of the townspeople to fall ill. That brings back painful memories of Kaycee Mitchell, Abby’s friend turned teen tormentor, who disappeared soon after she demonstrated a “hysterical illness” that may or may not have been faked.
Optimal runs the town with two fists, one velvet and one bare-knuckled, and most of the townspeople fall into line because … well, they’re either poor or lack perspective. Soon it becomes clear that someone, or several someones, will go to any length to keep Optimal’s secrets, and that Abby, who cannot leave town until she knows the truth, may not be leaving town at all.
If that sounds intriguing if not exactly original, you’d be right. And the same extends to the characters. In the author bio for Bonfire, Ritter’s production company is described as aiming “to highlight complex female protagonists.”
But Abby Williams is anything but complex. She’s a victim with a capital V, having spent her entire childhood tormented by an absent mother, a monstrous father and an evil cabal of mean girls while being entirely without flaw or fault herself. She was derided by the cabal as “ugly” even as the school’s handsome stud apparently pined for her all that time in painful silence. That sort of extreme deck-stacking diminishes the appeal of a character.
The other characters register more as types than people: the spiteful-with-a-smile second-banana mean girl, the blandly seductive town stud whose smile blinds people from what may or may not be a darker side; a father who has aged into a pitiable, self-pitying parody of his monstrous self; the cornpone, condescending, aphorism-spouting sheriff who may or may not be in someone’s pocket.
While the plot hums smoothly on Ritter’s confident prose, many of its machinations depend on convenient timing and suspended disbelief (i.e., the resolution of Kaycee’s disappearance, which to me seemed obvious but was never even considered by anybody in Bonfire). And the climactic final scenes are fairly silly and reek of stereotypical romantic suspense.
Bonfire is worth your time, however. The good stuff is really good: Ritter infuses her small-town-Indiana setting with believably stifling detail, and her dialogue has a nice, sharp-edged, off-the-nose quality that verges on the hardboiled. Her prose is quotable but rarely glib, and shows an advanced but subtle human insight: “Something about him always set me on edge, even in high school. Maybe because he was always quiet, fluid, like he’d just yawned into being.”
I recommend Bonfire, with reservations. Mostly because I believe Krysten Ritter is capable of writing a novel I could recommend without reservations.