i was offered an arc of this back in october, and i said “yes, please!” because celeste ng meets shirley jackson is my sweet spot. however, i only read horror in october so i mentioned that it might be a while before i got to it, and i was told: “Well, Sarah IS a horror author though this isn’t necessarily horror. It has subtle hints of horror. Could be appropriate for October. But you have until Feb when the book comes out so no need to rush! Enjoy!”
because it was a digital arc and wasn’t staring me in the face every day like the daunting stack of physical arcs, i did NOT rush, and i put off reading this until the week before pub date, which i realized about a quarter of the way through was a huge mistake on my part, first because it’s great, but also because it is horror, kind of—it’s that slippery, insidious, everyday horror—the horror of misunderstandings, gossip, of what goes on behind closed doors and how quickly rumors can spin out of control. plus, there’s one scene in particular that is proper horror and jesus christ, that image will never leave my brain.
set in 2027 in a bougie long island neighborhood, the novel employs a framing device by offsetting the main narrative with true crime news articles and interviews with neighbors looking back fifteen years later at the events of this summer—the summer The Maple Street Murders claimed the lives of an entire family.
weeee get to see what “really” set the murdery ball rolling, with full access to the thoughts, motivations, and perceptions of some of its key participants, but we also learn how history has interpreted the events, having fewer of the facts to work with, and—perhaps most alarmingly—how unswerving many of those who contributed to the situation are in their belief that they did nothing wrong all those years ago.
the conflict involves the members of two families: community college professor rhea schroeder, who, with her four perfect children and her frequently-absent husband, is the potluck and block party center of the neighborhood everyone wants to please. and then the wildes blow in from brooklyn: former beauty pageant queen gertie; pregnant, conflict-averse, with cleavage for days, former rocker/former addict arlo; tattooed and temperamental, 12-year-old brooklyn tough julia, and larry, a.k.a. robot boy, whose response to stress is to stick his hands down his pants.
The Wildes knew that they’d been breaking tacit rules ever since arriving on Maple Street. But they didn’t know which rules. For instance, Arlo was a former rocker who smoked late-night Parliaments off his front porch. He didn’t know that in the suburbs, you only smoke in your backyard, especially if you have tattoos and no childhood friends to vouch for you. Otherwise, you look angry, puffing all alone and on display. You vibe violent.
although they don’t fit in with the rest of their eileen-fisher-wearing neighbors, julia befriends rhea’s 13-year-old daughter shelly and is adopted into the passel of neighborhood kids—known collectively as the rat pack—as they run wild through the streets under the collective benevolent gaze of the adults. subsequently, rhea and gertie form their own close friendship, until a seemingly innocuous act by gertie sets off a chain reaction that festers into a violent conclusion.
when a massive sinkhole opens up in the ground, and shelly falls in, it is the crucible (if i may) that rhea, still pissed at gertie’s gaffe, uses as an excuse to isolate the wildes from the rest of the neighbors, blaming them for shelly’s accident, using her position in the community to spin and nurture a web of gossip that escalates into violence in the most deliciously soap-opera-y way.
this is a perfect excoriation of suburban social politics; the drive to keep up appearances, the judgment and favor-currying ingratiation, the social panic and the very worst way to extract testimony from children. it also slowly peels back the perfect-family facade to show that under every smooth, stable surface, there’s a sinkhole waiting to happen.
like a sinkhole, i fell into this one immediately, and i’m only sorry i waited so long to take the plunge. it’s dark and funny and page-turnery and that SCENE still haunts me.