Review: The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

This is a book I would like to have read for a book club as there are several aspects of it that I can’t quite make up my mind about and I’d enjoy discussing some of these nuances with others.. They are the sorts of things I can’t really go into in any depth in the review because it would constitute unacceptable (to me) spoiling so this is less of a review and more of a series of questions I cannot really answer.

Lizzie and Evie are 13-year old best friends. One day as they leave school Lizzie is picked up by her mother, leaving Evie to walk home alone but she disappears. In the frenzy of police interviews and schoolyard gossip which follows Lizzie is left to piece together what happened and yearn for her friend’s return. A few days after the disappearance Lizzie remembers something that directs the investigation towards a local man who has also disappeared but it is not clear early on whether the two events are connected.

The book is told in the present tense from Lizzie’s point of view, neither of which are my favourite forms of narrative and in combination they could have sounded the death knell early on. However Abbott has used both the point of view and the tense to perfection, using the first to beautifully depict the self-absorbed narcissism of being 13 and the second to envelop the reader cloyingly in Lizzie’s world. I was definitely seeing things from this particular 13 year-old’s perspective rather than utilising any of my own experiences of being that age though. As the book progressed the language and thoughts Lizzie started to express seemed far too adult and atypical for girls of that age. I suppose one could argue that the circumstances Lizzie found herself in prompted a faster than normal maturation but I did not get the feeling that this is what the author was trying to convey. Then again, Lizzie is the ultimate unreliable narrator – there are dreams, memories and longings that become quite mixed up so readers are not sure what is real and what imagined – so maybe it is in keeping that her narrative voice is not entirely authentic? Or maybe there is an even bigger gulf than I imagined between life in the US and life here in Australia?

Part of the reason I grew less accepting of Lizzie’s voice was that all the young girls in the book (i.e. Evie and and her older sister Dusty in addition to Lizzie) are depicted with the kinds of thoughts about sex and sexuality that I don’t think are typical. One would have been believable but, for me, three was far less so, especially as they all arrived at their beliefs independently. In the same way I found it difficult to swallow that all the dad-age men in the novel were somewhere on the spectrum of sexual predator. I guess Abbott was exploring the ‘you never know what’s lurking in suburbia’ theme but I certainly found the book less successful as it went on when just about everyone turned out to be at least slightly debauched. To me, one or two such characters are more believable than an entire cast but perhaps I am missing a larger point?

Both the time and place of the book are left very vague and I assume this is a deliberate strategy to focus our attention more keenly on the people at the heart of the story and their very narrow world of neighbouring houses. I imagine Abbott thinks we don’t need to concern ourselves with anything larger than that in terms of place and this aspect of the novel worked well. An interview I read with Abbott suggests the book is set ‘in the 1980’s’ (I think later in the decade but am not really basing this on much other than use of the phrase ‘school lockdown’)  which fits with the novel’s general sense of a more innocent time than today. I thought the adults, including police, were perhaps a bit too naive but then in the suburbs of my youth (I turned 13 in 1980) we lived in the shadow of the unsolved and high profile disappearances of 5 children in two separate incidents some years earlier, so perhaps in this one respect my own experience was not quite the norm.

I really would not classify this as crime fiction but I don’t mean that as a criticism in any way, I simply think it has wider appeal and really follows none of the conventions or tropes of the genre. If it were a book written by someone who wasn’t already identified as a crime writer I think this would more easily have slipped neatly into a general or literary fiction category.

If you had asked me at somewhere just after the half-way point of this novel what my rating would be I’d have anticipated a 4 or even a 4.5 for what was a very compelling story quite beautifully written (Abbott really does have a way with words). But then the book started to lose its punch for me by having virtually everyone turn out to be the same kind of creepy character and every relationship containing some element of abuse. And just to be contrary with myself I found the ending disappointing because it was all a bit too neat and not as dark as I thought the story deserved. Overall though I’m glad I read the book and it is one I can imagine discussing with gusto with other readers of it and possibly even having my opinions of it changed over time.

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The End of Everything has been reviewed all over the place but I’ve linked to ones that provide some range of views: Book Smugglers (warning there are a few spoilers here but it’s a good review which raises some interesting discussion points), Just a Normal Girl in London, Mostly FictionReadings Bookshop blog

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My rating 3.5? 3? I’m really not sure
Publisher Pan Macmillan [2011]
ISBN 9780330533829
Length 244 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series standalone
Source I borrowed it from the library

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9 Responses to Review: The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

  1. Bernadette – What a thoughtful and interesting review! I confess I haven’t yet read this one, but I agree with you about Abbott’s wonderful writing style. And I can see why you’d be put off by being asked to believe that just about everyone in the novel turns out to be creepy (although there are certainly creepy people in this world). Yes, from what I’ve read of this novel it would be a terrific choice for a book club…

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  2. Barbara says:

    I do think American girls are prematurely obsessed by sexual fantasies, I suppose all those hormones at work. I don’t think this is healthy at all but our wanting them to remain children just doesn’t happen. They’re over-exposed to everything sexual in movies, TV, and even books. Maybe the atmosphere in Australia is different – I hope so. Anyway, your guess that American girls are just more wordly might be right on target.

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    • Barbara I suspect you are right…there do seem to be big differences between the US and OZ culture in this respect….though without wanting to be spoiler-y I am still surprised at the nature of the fantasies. No ne was dreaming about a pop star or an older boy…all dreaming about men old enough to be their fathers (or in some cases their actual own fathers). This seemed a stretch to me that they would all be doing this

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  3. Maxine says:

    This book has been heavily promoted over here in the UK but I haven’t been keen to try it for some reason, not sure why. I do think that teenagers have sexual fantasies but frankly I am not interested in reading about them. I think some succumb to what they are exposed to (as Barbara writes) and some are more resistant – just as older people are mixed at their acceptance/rejection of popular culture models (sometimes I feel quite lonely at never having watched a reality tv show or talent contest). This one sounds a bit like the second half of Lovely Bones as it slowly petered out over what seemed like a lot of pages, into themes of creepy people in suburbia. Laura Lippman (US) also addresses these themes. I think you’ve written a good review, but to me the book seems to be on a currently trendy theme (The Slap etc) and I just can’t identify one good reason to read it (good writing alone is not enough for me).

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    • Funny you should mentin THE SLAP as my reaction to this book was similiar to my reaction to that one…supposed to be depicting an environment I am at least partly familiar with – less so in the case of this book but I was a teenage girl in the 80’s even if it was in a different country – and it just doesn’t ring true. I’ve never had a sexual fantasy about a friend’s father…not even now

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      • Maxine says:

        Glad to hear it Bernadette and as mother of two girls in the age range I am sure that they and their friends are in the same “not having fantasies about older men esp their Dads” boat. Old men are just , not in that department, to them!!!!! But this is the UK, maybe the US is weird and different.

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  4. Kathy D. says:

    I don’t know about this “phenomenon” going on here — the young girls having fantasies about older men, their fathers’ friends, etc.
    I was a young girl over here years before you were, Bernadette, but then it was about mooning over TV celebrities and singers who were fairly young, in their 20s or early 30s. And I haven’t heard of this from teens whom I know or hear or read about.
    The Lovely Bones I can’t discuss I’m still in recovery from the gratuitously violent and horrendous movie; anyone who liked it I’d worry about. And I don’t know why people kept the book on the best sellers’ lists, no idea.
    So, I don’t know who this author is thinking about or her experiences with friends or acquaintances or school mates. Although I’m older than she is, this is not a phenomenon with which I’m acquainted.
    However, the book description turns me off.

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