I really enjoyed Sarah Henstra’s debut novel, Mad Miss Mimic, and have been looking forward to reading more of her work. When I saw The Red Word, I was immediately curious. I find it interesting to read fictional explorations of rape culture. I think they’re important in contributing to change, and I find they usually make for impactful reads. And I’m always on board for some feminist literature.
(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)
(From Goodreads) A smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture and the extremes to which ideology can go, The Red Word is a campus novel like no other. As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry–particularly at a fraternity called GBC. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the state of feminist activism on campus. GBC is notorious, she learns, nicknamed “Gang Bang Central” and a prominent contributor to a list of date rapists compiled by female students. Despite continuing to party there and dating one of the brothers, Karen is equally seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women, who surprise her by wanting her as a housemate and recruiting her into the upper-level class of a charismatic feminist mythology scholar they all adore. As Karen finds herself caught between two increasingly polarized camps, ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit on the perfect way to expose and bring down the fraternity as a symbol of rape culture–but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.
The Red Word captures beautifully the feverish binarism of campus politics and the headlong rush of youth toward new friends, lovers, and life-altering ideas. With strains of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Alison Lurie’s Truth and Consequences, and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Sarah Henstra’s debut adult novel arrives on the wings of furies.
I wanted to like this book, but it was such a struggle to get through. It lacked the whimsy of Mad Miss Mimic – not that a book about rape culture should be whimsical – and I think Henstra’s writing fell short because of it. Granted, I read a fairly early ARC, so things may be different in the final copy, but I found the writing to be borderline pretentious. I just didn’t enjoy it, which made it difficult for me to connect with the story and the characters.
The characters themselves were fine. There wasn’t anything wrong with them per se, but I felt they kind of personified feminist stereotypes, which I didn’t particularly like. This is a campus novel, and I felt like I was right back in college with all those girls who try too hard to be feminist and edgy and it kind of made me cringe a bit. I think my inability to identify with the characters is largely personal because these are the sort of people who would have really annoyed me in college (and kind of still do). They just a bit unrealistic, and I didn’t care too much about what happened to them. Which is NOT what you want in a novel about rape.
The story itself I found to be a good exploration of rape culture on college campuses. It felt (for the most part) like something that could actually happen, and I liked that it explored how people interpret consent (especially in the context of wild college parties). But I couldn’t get into it. The writing was distracting, and everything about this book felt so forced. Personally, I think this story could have been more impactful had it been subtler. It was almost as if I was being told a story by someone who was overly passionate about the subject and all I wanted to do was back away from the noise instead of listen intently. It just missed the mark for me.
★★★☆☆ – (More like 2.5 stars if I’m being honest.) The Red Word was just okay. It wasn’t bad, and did do a fair job of exploring rape culture, but I think there were a lot of ways this could have been improved. Maybe it’s because I’ve read a couple of books about college rape (most notably John Krakauer’s Missoula, which I would highly recommend), but this book just didn’t do it for me, unfortunately.
The Red Word will be available on March 13. You can preorder on Amazon now.
This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.
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