Saturday, July 16, 2011

Book Review: The End of Everything

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur Books, 2011)

In her fifth novel, Abbott (Queenpin, Bury Me Deep) moves beyond the genre of noir crime, but that doesn't mean the subject matter isn't dark.  The specters of abduction, molestation, and murder loom over The End of Everything, which focuses on the baffling disappearance of 13-year-old Evie Verver.  But the novel's narrator, Evie's closest friend Lizzie, isn't capable of just sitting back and letting the police do their work.  Desperate to learn what has happened to Evie--and to restore her to her devastated family--Lizzie actively involves herself in the investigation.  In the course of her surreptitious sleuthing, Lizzie discovers some startling truths about her best friend, the Verver family next door, and the small town where they all reside.

Abbott taps the American Gothic vein here, probing the dark underbelly of 1980's Midwestern suburbia (the word "secret" buzzes through the entire narrative).  What might have been a magical summer--the last one before Lizzie and Evie would move on to high school--is instead overshadowed by heartache and horror.  Even worse, Lizzie finds her past childhood experiences being tarnished, as she's forced to consider that life never really was as innocent and idyllic as she perceived it to be:

These are all the good things, and there were such good things.  But then there were the other things, and they seemed to come later, but what if they didn't?  What if everything was there all along, creeping soundlessly from corner to corner, shuddering fast from Evie's nighttime whispers, from the dark hollows of that sunny-shingled house, and I didn't hear it? Didn't see it? 
Lizzie employs an appropriately Gothic rhetoric in her narrative, speaking of "ghosts," "ghouls," and "creeping monsters," "haunted spots" and "unimaginable horrors."  The image of imploding/ demolished domiciles--a la Poe's House of Usher--also recurs throughout.  Poe is indeed an interesting touchstone, since Lizzie aligns with the tradition of the unreliable narrator (her motivations are complicated by her serious teenage crush on Evie's father, and her powers of recollection hardly prove infallible).  The Gothic motif of the double, which Poe helped popularize in American literature, likewise comes into play here (by novel's end, even the song "Me and and My Shadow" from Lizzie and Evie's earlier tap-dance recitals achieves ominous resonance).

Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn to such works as The Lovely Bones and The Virgin Suicides (whose author Jeffrey Eugenides, like Abbott, grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan).  But The End of Everything also seems to echo novels like Dandelion Wine (with Ray Bradbury's Green Town being suggestively rechristened "Green Hollow"), The Girl Next Door (Jack Ketchum's dark variant on a coming-of-age tale), and Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel of tragic love).  Perhaps the most significant debt, though, is to the literary mysteries of Henry James (surely it's no coincidence that the Ververs have the same surname as the main characters in The Golden Bowl) and William Faulkner (Lizzie's imagination of a climactic conversation between Dusty Verver and her sister Evie hearkens back to a central scene in Absalom, Absalom!)--novels where the emphasis is less on "whodunit" than who knew what, and how.

All this allusiveness notwithstanding, the book is distinctively Abbott's.  Her stylistic hallmarks are in evidence once again: the ability to build scenes replete with sensuous detail, and to craft plots that feature stunning twists (every time you think you've figured out where this novel is heading, you're presented another wicked curve).  This is a brilliant work of dark fiction, an engrossing read that continues to haunt long after the book's covers have been closed.  It is also far and away Abbott's best book to date (and that's saying a lot, considering the success of her previous novels).  I suspect that years from now we will look back and note how The End of Everything marked the beginning of the major phase of the author's career. 

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