Wednesday, May 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Outliers by Kimberly McCreight

TITLE: The Outliers

AUTHOR: Kimberly McCreight

GENRE: thriller, mystery

PLOT SUMMARY: Wylie Lang has never quite been able to keep up with her wild child best friend, Cassie, but has become an extreme agoraphobe after the death of her mother. However, when Cassie texts her, after days of not speaking, begging Wylie to come and rescue her, Wylie does. She's used to Cassie getting herself into one mess or another, but somehow, this time seems worse than normal. Accompanied by Cassie's boyfriend Jasper, Wylie follows Cassie's increasingly-cryptic texts, various nightmare scenarios flashing through her head as she does. But none compare to the nightmare that's about to begin when Wylie and Jasper reach their destination.

FIRST THOUGHTS: ...Ugh. Okay, okay, that's not a very adequate descriptor. There must be a better word to sum it all up. But seriously -- ugh. I'm a huge fan of another novel by McCreight, "Reconstructing Amelia," so I was sorely disappointed by this one. Actually, that's a good word to sum up my experience reading this book: disappointed. It's not terrible or anything, but it doesn't hold up nearly as well to other thrillers the YA market has to offer. What starts off as a typical but promising mystery quickly devolves into a confused mess of tangled plot lines and character motivations. It's not a very hard read, but it's hard to get lost, and even harder to care enough to try and sort it out.

THOUGHTS ON PLOT: Lord knows there is no shortage of "missing best friend" stories in the thriller genre, especially those aimed at young adults. It makes sense -- it gives your protagonist an automatic reason to care and get involved in the drama, and by extension, a reason for your audience to care, too. But with such a ubiquitous setup, you almost have to throw in a twist or two to keep it fresh. And while this book has no shortage of twists, it does not work very well, at least not for me. Part of the problem is that there are so many, done with varying degrees of skill. While I admit I didn't see the majority of them coming, several of them made me go, "Oh, come on!" And that's another issue; a lot of them seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere. I read the book totally spoiler-free, so I was completely blindsided by the big plot twist that comes about 3/4 of the way in. It honestly feels like you've stumbled into another, much more confusing book. And the ending annoyed me, too. Not only because it's yet another twist, but because the story doesn't end. The book's ending is just a setup for the next book, and so, the book isn't a complete story in itself.

4 / 10

THOUGHTS ON CHARACTERS: Wylie is a very compelling main character. I'm not sure I'd call her likable, but honestly, with all the shit she goes through, she's earned the right to be a bit unlikable. Yeah, she does stupid things sometimes and isn't always the nicest, but she's clearly goodhearted and brave, and generally comes off as a nice girl who got in way over her head. Jasper was also a pleasant surprise. Set up to be the typical "bad boy" (read: abusive asshole), the fact that he turns out to be a genuinely goodhearted, upstanding kind of guy who just happens to have a temper problem was very nice.  I was also relieved when it became apparent that he really does love Cassie, and that the book didn't pull the stupid "main boy and main girl fall in love because it's YA and that's what the statistics say the market wants" thing. Against all odds, I actually turned out to like Cassie, too -- and in some ways, she was more interesting than Wylie. So I liked all three leads. Yay! Unfortunately, the rest of the cast felt lacking and one-dimensional. Even characters like Wylie's parents, Lexi, and Dr. Caton, who I felt like had real potential to be interesting, just didn't cut it for me. A lot of the side characters' motivations felt vague and unsubstantial, like they were just there to cause drama rather than further the plot. Wylie, Jasper and Cassie basically carry the book -- which, had I liked the plot more, would've been enough.

5 / 10

THOUGHTS ON WRITING STYLE: As far as prose goes, McCreight has been, and continues to be, above-average. She's not too purple or too beige, and does a good job of setting the scene. Her internal monologue for Wylie is pretty good, too. However, in some parts, the dialogue (especially as spoken by the antagonists) comes off as rather forced, and at times, even cliche. As mentioned above, a lot of the twists didn't feel properly foreshadowed, either. I feel like this book could've benefited greatly from maybe one or two more rounds through the BETA readers and editors. It's not terrible or even carelessly done -- just in need of some extra polish.

6 / 10

THOUGHTS ON POLITICAL STUFF: By way of diversity, this book doesn't have much. Wylie's family has a traditionally Asian last name, but their ethnicity is never mentioned, so I'm not going to count it. Cassie is fat and is still portrayed as being attractive, so that's a plus, at least. Other than that, there are no diverse characters to speak of. By far my biggest gripe, however, is the portrayal of mental illness. First -- Wylie suffers from extreme anxiety and depression, and is so agoraphobic she can't leave her house at the start of the novel. But, when Cassie calls for help, she just magically gets over her phobia. True, she's still a nervous wreck and it clearly takes a lot of effort on her part, but it felt a little too easy for me. If she was going to conquer her fear that early and easily, why include it at all? Second -- Wylie's greatest fear is being committed. This is an understandable fear, and one can easily see why the idea of being forced into an institution would frighten her, but the fact that it's constantly used as a threat against her really didn't sit well with me. The narrative goes back and forth over whether or not we're supposed to sympathize with the character threatening her, but the entire time, it just feels uncomfortable to read, and not in an intentional way. Finally, I felt like the majority of Wylie's character was based on her mental illness. Obviously, having depression and anxiety as extreme as hers would greatly affect one's personality, but there are times when it feels like that's all she is, like she has no personality traits that are unconnected to it. So, at times, Wylie comes off as more of an archetype than a fully fleshed out character, which is just plain unfortunate.

4 / 10

FINAL THOUGHTS: This book is really not up to par with Kimberly McCreight's previous work. I've noticed that reviews for pretty much all her books tend to be quite divisive, and the reviews for this one are no exception. ...You can probably tell where I stand. It's far from the worst book ever, and it held my attention long enough for me to finish, but I have no intention with carrying on with the series.

FINAL GRADE:  4.5 / 10

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Thank you so much for reading this review! If you've read "The Outliers," tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

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