fulfilling my 2021 goal to read one book each month by an author i love that i haven’t gotten around to reading yet
this is a very visceral and emotionally wrenching story, which is the tone i’ve come to expect from mcginnis, even though all of the books i’ve read by her so far have been wildly different in terms of subject matter and her approach to her subject matter.
Heroine is, thematically, a straightforward contemporary YA problem novel: a high-performing high school athlete is severely injured in a car accident and becomes addicted to prescription painkillers. however, its opening line: When I wake up, all my friends are dead is the kind of grim gutpunch that mcginnis excels at deploying.
none of what happens, plotwise, is unexpected in this kind of cautionary addiction tale: the slippery slope of a girl abusing drugs, deluding herself that she’s got it all under control even as she begins crossing so many lines; lying and stealing and compromising her relationships with her friends and family while she descends deeper into addiction and graduates from oxy to heroin.
it’s the way that mcginnis explores this generic theme that elevates it into something noteworthy; the uncomfortable immersion into mickey’s mind as she becomes more dependent on drugs, gradually unmooring herself from her former life and its support system until she has essentially isolated herself in her addiction.
in a town where high school sports are a very big deal, mickey is as hometown-famous for her athleticism as she is for her tough guy attitude. after the car accident (which pops her hip out of its socket like a barbie doll, exposing all the inside-stuff), mickey wants so badly to recover from her injuries in time to join her team for the upcoming season that she pops her prescribed oxy like candy, dulling the pain so she can get back to training. while this method works, and everyone is mightily impressed with how quickly she is ‘recovering,’ she soon runs out of her legit medication and has to scramble to get more in order to stay on target.
it’s all very powerfully realized on the page—her impatience with her body as it struggles to heal, her justification that her drugtaking is for the good of the team, and, despite her awareness that there’s an opioid epidemic killing local folks, her rationalization that what she’s doing is only temporary, and she’s not destined to become a statistic like those other people, even as she throws herself into her addiction with the same single-mindedness that enabled her to become an all-star catcher.
I admit to myself that I am a heroin user, while also updating in my mind what that actually means. I am not a wasted person. I am not prowling the streets. I am not an addict. I am a girl spinning her locker combination. I am a girl who got a B on her math test. I am a girl who has two holes on the inside of her arm, but they do not tell the whole story of me.
the most impressive tendril of this plot is the sly shift as mickey’s self-medicating becomes more about how it makes her feel than how it manages her pain. she’s always been formidable on the field, but she’s never been good in social situations, and the unexpected side effect of the drugs is that they smooth away her social anxieties, giving her the confidence she’s never experienced along with a false sense of invincibility.
the character work is excellent, and everyone feels authentic—the locker room banter between her teammates, mickey’s complex family dynamics, the way she compartmentalizes her behaviors between her sports-friends and her drug-friends, and the widening gulf between her old and new priorities—everything reads horrifyingly real.
it’s not as surprising and original as some of her other works, but it takes a been-there-done-that kind of plot and blows it out of the conventional waters with that trademark intensity that is mcginnis’ superpower.