Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable reads I've had in a long time, the latest from Courtney Summers is a searing and caustic look at privilege and its power.
Sixteen-year-old Georgia wants to be an Aspera Girl - the name given to the elite team of beautiful women who look after the rich and famous at the exclusive resort on the outskirts of her small town. Her desire for this is built partly on the fact her recently-deceased mother wanted her nowhere near the place and the fact the resort's owner told her when she was younger that she was beautiful and should come to work for him when she's older.
Georgia has held Matthew's words about her beauty close for a number of years, but is only just beginning to understand that being beautiful gives her power, even if she has no idea how to wield it.
The book opens with Georgia being hit by a car on the road leading to the resort. She doesn't see her assailant, but he takes her bike and the photographs she's carrying. Photographs she stole money from her brother to pay for. Photographs in which she appears nude after being coerced into it by a shady photographer who tells her she has what it takes to be model.
While stumbling away from the scene of the accident, Georgia stumbles upon the body of a young girl in the woods by the road. Once the police are summoned, the assumption has already been made that the person responsible for Ashley's murder is the same person who hit Georgia with their car. The person Georgia never actually saw.
Ashley's older sister doesn't accept this and she shows up to ask Georgia questions. These two have a complex history that has links to Aspera and Georgia's mother who worked there, ostensibly as a housekeeper, but probably as something more.
In order to pay her brother back for the money she stole, Georgia takes a job at Aspera, thinking she'll be an Aspera Girl, just the way she's always dreamed she would. In reality she's tucked away in a tiny office next to the owner of the resort and given the task of making sure guests get anything and everything they want. She thinks by being there, she will be able to uncover clues about what happened to Ashley, but as she discovers more about the inner workings of the resort and the kinds of people who stay there, she discovers there is little that money and privilege can't buy.
Meanwhile, her relationship with Ashley's sister Nora is intensifying, and there is something decidedly odd about the way Nora's father is behaving. And is there a link between the photographer at the mall and Ashley's disappearance? And how does Matthew's wife, Cleo, fit into all this?
As the mysteries layer up on themselves, it starts to feel increasingly unlikely that Georgia will make it out of this unscathed.
Calling this a queer thriller is a little bit of a stretch. Yes, Georgia is queer and has a rather sweet relationship building with Nora. And yes, there are thriller elements in there. But the story is a slow burn and reveals itself in snapshots that don't quite have the impact a true thriller would have. There is often as much left off the page as there is on it, meaning the reader is forced to read between the lines to figure out exactly what is happening.
And what is actually happening is more grotesque than anything actually spelled out for the reader. Which is why a lengthy, fully described sex scene in Matthew's office comes as such a shock. As a reader we've grown used to things being veiled, but this particular scene, which is horrific, gets the full Cinemascope treatment, making it even more awful that it would be if it had been written in the same way the rest of the book is.
This is a challenging book which, if you're the kind of person who requires trigger warnings, should be avoided. I'm not sure there are enough trigger warning in the world to prepare someone for this. Yet I found it totally compelling and could not put it down. Georgia is not a likable character in many ways, yet it was easy to see why she made the choices she did, even when they were often dangerous and self-destructive. What she wants is so at odds with what she truly needs, it creates a huge amount of tension which drives the book. And without anyone available to guide her, is it any wonder she heads off down the wrong track?
I'd recommend this book because it is fascinating and frightening and awful in the way it speaks to the way power is used, how power corrupts and the way women continually suffer at the hands of powerful men. But it is a difficult read and includes rape, suicide, sexual harassment, drug use and many other challenging subjects. So not for those readers who don't deal well with this kind of content.
But don't just listen to me. Here's the blurb:The new groundbreaking queer thriller from New York Times bestselling and Edgar-award Winning author Courtney Summers.
When sixteen-year-old Georgia Avis discovers the dead body of thirteen-year-old Ashley James, she teams up with Ashley's older sister, Nora, to find and bring the killer to justice before he strikes again. But their investigation throws Georgia into a world of unimaginable privilege and wealth, without conscience or consequence, and as Ashley’s killer closes in, Georgia will discover when money, power and beauty rule, it might not be a matter of who is guilty—but who is guiltiest.
A spiritual successor to the 2018 breakout hit, Sadie, I'm the Girl is a masterfully written, bold, and unflinching account of how one young woman feels in her body as she struggles to navigate a deadly and predatory power structure while asking readers one question: if this is the way the world is, do you accept it?