Review: Delicate Monsters – Stephanie Kuehn

delicate monstersFrom the Morris-Award winning author of Charm & Strange, comes a twisted and haunting tale about three teens uncovering dark secrets and even darker truths about themselves.

When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.

Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.

Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past. 

But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs.

Rating: 4/5

Sarcastic as all hell, with bitterness masking some very real truths. From the very opening pages, I knew this was going to be a mindfuck, pardon my French. (We really need a classier word for mindfuck, my friends, but it perfectly encapsulates what I’m trying to express, so for now, mindfuck it is.)

According to the pamphlets the park owners handed out – only after admission was paid, of course – a volcanic explosion was the cause of petrification, a great magma burst freezing the giants like gods on a mountain and preserving them through the ages so that one day high school students could wander in pairs among the ferns and collect information with which to complete their class projects. 

BURN.

If you’ve read a Stephanie Kuehn book before, you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t, well, think a YA version of Gillian Flynn. Yeah.

But boy oh boy, does this tale descend into madness. The story is told from three perspectives – Emerson, his brother Miles, and classmate Sadie. While Sadie appears to be the most obviously sadistic/screwed-up, by the end of the novel, you’re not entirely sure whether anyone was okay in the head at all.

“Do you think you got jumped by those guys because there’s something wrong with you? Or because there’s something wrong with them?” 

What I admire about Kuehn’s books is that she manages to delve into the darker aspects of mental illness and unhealthy family structures without ever stigmatizing them or passing a judgment.

There was a terrible injustice, he thought, in being an introvert who was afraid to be alone. 

Of course, as with all the author’s books, you can’t go into detail in reviews without spoiling the book for others. It’s really all about the journey, particularly when considering the psychological nature of the book.

Her father, Sadie had realized somewhere on that trip, was not a happy person. But he wasn’t trying to be happy and his not trying meant that he wasn’t dissatisfied. 

What I can say is the following:

1. You think you know who the perpetrators and the victims are. You are wrong. In some ways, everyone is both a perpetrator and a victim.

2. The author explores some very uncomfortable truths about human nature, and suffering. And the darker things that we feel but don’t necessarily want to admit to out loud.

3. The extent of the sins of the various characters is never explicitly laid out. While we certainly get an idea, they are never outlined neatly for the reader. In other words, I’m not sure what the defining crime was. But maybe that’s the point – death by a thousand cuts.

4. In fact, this novel is a lot more ambigious than the author’s previous two. This is particularly emphasized with the abrupt ending. There is no proper closure – we have an idea of what’s about to happen, but it’s left to the reader to decide. Frustrating, yes, but I think it fits in with the feel of the book.

Floating candles had to be one of the worst party decorations ever invented, what with their fake romantic pretension and atmospheric contrivance. In terms of general tackiness, they ranked right up there with wind puppets and those bags of Jordan almonds that got handed out at weddings. 

This is not an enjoyable book. A good one, yes – Stephanie Kuehn is an incredibly gifted author, with a talent for making us look at the truths of life that we’d prefer to remain buried. Nobody is likeable here – Sadie is downright mean and sociopathic, Emerson’s affable persona rapidly unravels to reveal disturbing depths, and truths are revealed about Mile’s continual ailments that lessened my sympathy for him, which culminated in outright horror at an action he takes at the end of the book.

Highly disturbing. More so for the fact that we can sometimes identify parts of ourselves within these characters, the ugly thoughts and feelings that we suppress and hope never see the light of day. And mental illness isn’t the only issue contained in this book, althought we know it’s the overarching one. There’s also some insightful commentary on racism, poverty, and sexuality.

And the prose, oh the precise, perfect prose.

Beneath the glitzy wine industry and quaint tourism pooled a dark futility, a cruel sort of helplessness. It lurked in corners. It oozed from hormones. 

I’m still digesting how I feel about it. In the end, I think I’m sad for everybody.

She’d had her shine.
And now, somewhere, somehow, for a heart she’d never know, to light a sky she’d never see, someone else was preparing for theirs. 

But don’t let this put you off the book. If the quotes I’ve included here are enough to pique your interest, then I highly recommend you pick this book up.

It’s like, we all have this place in the world. Somewhere we can run on our hamster wheels and be comfortable. There are TV shows to watch. Books to read. Music to listen to. People to spend time with, maybe even fuck every now and then. There’s something and someone for everyone. So we can go through life and protect ourselves from discomfort, from having our beliefs challenged, and blissfully ignore the rest of the big bad world that’s out there. It’s what most of us do. Hell, no one really wants to take a stand or answer any call to action if they don’t have to. We just say we do to feel better about ourselves. For most people, though, life is about finding their hamster wheel and running on it. It gives the illusion of progress. 

***
ARC received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may change prior to publication. 

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8 thoughts on “Review: Delicate Monsters – Stephanie Kuehn

  1. I skimmed your review because I am an absolute fan of Stephanie Kuehn. I read her Charm and Strange (loved it) and Complicit (adored it) and she is now an insta-buy in every sense of the word, and I didn’t want to get spoiled. And you’re 100% accurate when you said she’s the YA version of Gillian Flynn. She is that good!

    Faye at The Social Potato

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    1. Yup, I tried not to be too spoiler in the review, but with Stephanie’s books it’s always better to go in blind! I was an instant fan after Charm & Strange, and her subsequent books have proved that she’s got a superb talent for storytelling.

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  2. I don’t think I’d enjoy this read. But it sounds like it’s not meant to be enjoyed. Unlikable characters and an open ending are not things I like in a book at all, so while this may be a powerful study on human character and mental illness, this is not a book for me. Nice to hear you appreciated it. Wonderful review! 🙂

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  3. I’ve never actually read anything by this author. I have to be honest and say that her type of stories are probably something that I can only enjoy from time to time. Sometimes, though, mindfuck stories can be such a source of enjoyment. 😀

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