When you grow up in a place called Barrens, you want to get out -- especially if it's an area with limited job options, a struggling agricultural industry, and nothing else to commend it. Although, the name alone would probably justify wanting to get out even if the economy and culture were richer. But as is the case with too many small towns like this, few manage to get out. Abby Williams headed for Chicago two days after she graduated from high school, went to college and law school, becoming an associate at an environmental firm -- and only sometime after that did she return.
She returns with her friend (a gay black man, who tends to stick out in the small, rural Illinois town), a first-year associate and a couple of students to investigate some claims about the water in the local reservoir. The town's only major employer is called Optimal Plastics, which has been dogged by rumors of shoddy environmental practices and health problems for years -- including before they came to Illinois -- and the team is going to see if they can make these rumors and concerns stick this time.
As they dig into records, tests, regulatory reports and whatnot, Abby notices something. Optimal Plastics is clean. Absolutely clean -- on paper, there's never been a company so clean and responsible. Which just seems impossible, no one is this perfect. Abby smells blood in the water and goes on the attack.
At the same time, in a small town, you can't help but run into people you don't want to see again -- which is pretty much everyone from High School. The girls who used to torment her, the guy she had a large crush on, the people she wasn't so sure about. It takes mere moments for her to get embroiled (or re-embroiled) in the same relationships, problems, gossip that she'd escaped from. From "the old crowd" (that was never Abby's crowd), she gets her insight into Optimal Plastics -- all the good they've done for the town, the numbers of people they employ, the money they pour into the schools, and so on. So much good that no one wants to take a good look into them, the price is potentially too high.
This reminds her (not that she needed the reminder) of some problems potentially tied to the company back when she was in high school -- girls that seemed inexplicably sick. What else could it be from? She's told time and time again by her friend that what happened over a decade ago doesn't matter,what matters is what the company is doing now. Abby's not convinced, and keeps digging at this -- even if she agrees with him, the ghosts that haunt her will not allow her to let it go. Abby becomes more and more focused on this aspect of the investigation -- flirting with and maybe crossing the lines into obsession.
Oh, and did I mention her father? As you may have picked up from the fact I mentioned earlier that she hadn't returned to Barrens since high school that she's not that close to anyone there -- including her father. The exploration of and changes to their relationship is one of the more emotionally satisfying storylines in the book.
I'm from a small town, I get the feeling of never actually escaping from it -- returning to the same place you left. But I'm willing to bet that even readers from larger towns/cities can relate to this. You can take the girl out of High School, but you can never take High School out of the girl, I guess. Ritter deals with the emotional realities and hazards like a pro -- there's not a beat that seems false or forced. The manner in which Abby makes connections, interweaves her look into what happened years ago with what's going on right now is great (for the reader). The secrets she uncovers are chilling and unthinkable -- yet entirely believable.
Would I have liked to have seen more with her colleagues reacting to Barrens, helping her follow the leads she's interested in, or just interacting with her at all? Absolutely -- but I'm not sure how Ritter could've done that without more effort than it's probably worth. Could she have done more with her Chicago-friend sticking out in Barrens? Yup, but it might have distracted from the overall plot (but if she's going to remark on it as often as she does, she should do something on it -- it comes across as urban snobbery). I think that's almost something I could say about everything in the book. I don't know that I needed a lot more of everything, but I think every bit of the story, the characters, the mystery, etc. could use a little bit more development, a little more space. Not much, just a little bit.
I liked Abby almost immediately -- from the fairly disturbing Prologue, on through to her struggles in town and questionable choices, you root for her and hope that she finds an element of peace. Her coworkers are great. It's hard to decide what you think about some of her old high school friends right away, and probably best no to decide too much about anyone in town until The Reveal at the end.
The writing is crisp and compelling -- Ritter has some really nice turns of phrase as well. There's a couple of times that Abby is drunk and/or the influence of alcohol plus other things that were just excellent. Abby's inability to keep her perceptions in line, to have a coherent recollection about everything she experiences through this time -- that's just excellently executed.
I won't say that it's one of the best books I've read this year -- if there's a plot point here that you haven't seen, I'll be surprised. If there's a character, character arc, or anything like that you haven't seen before, I'll eat my hat. Does it matter? Nope. The way that Ritter tells the story, how she treats the characters and shows them to the reader -- how she executes things, that's the key. It all worked really well, I was thoroughly entertained, even held in suspense. Even if in retrospect I decided that I'd seen it all before, I didn't see a lot of it coming -- or I'd seen story elements X and Y a few dozen times, I hadn't seen them combined the way Ritter did. This is a solid first novel, and I hope there's at least a second on the way.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Crown Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for this post -- thanks to both for this.