Book Review: Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik


Summertime always puts me in the mood for a good scare. I think it’s the hot weather or something. Give me a natural disaster flick or a grisly murder mystery, and I’m happy, cheesy effects and all. Humidity be damned.  When I was growing up and the summer weather was particularly sticky and humid, my dad would load me and my brothers into the mini-van, and we’d drive 40 minutes away from the city to catch a double-feature, mostly thrillers, at the drive-in. Forget the respite of artic-chilled movie theaters. There’s something about popping the trunk of a mini-van, gorging on salted butter popcorn, swapping at mosquitos, and battling a scare-induced need to urinate all while watching a half-cheesy, half-terrifying movie that seems just right.  I’m feeling pretty nostalgic for the days of Twister, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Scream. Those nights at the drive-in I remember feeling part of it all, like I was in equilibrium with the world or something, as middle school as that sounds.

So the other day, one of those characteristic Midwestern melty, wet ones, I stumbled upon Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik in the library’s“Hot Reads” section , and the novel’s dark premise – the murder of a teenage girl – seemed right up my grisly alley.

Overview: Eighteen year old Grace Baker’s quiet, predictable world at Chandler, an elite, preppy school where her dedicated father teaches history and her enigmatic mother heads the photography studio, is shattered when her charismatic and wild younger sister is found dead in a field behind the school. Though the murder is pinned on Manny Flores, a classmate whose suicide note reads as a confession, goody-goody Grace instinctively feels no closure to the case and slides into a self-destructive, obsessive haze, becoming addicted to prescription drugs and then pregnant under circumstances mysterious and forgotten. She drops out of Williams, obtains a job at her alma mater working in the AV room, and moves back into her childhood home, now a broken one. Her father, too, is sliding toward self-destruction, and her mother, as wild and beautiful as her beloved muse Nica,has moved to an artist’s colony, no longer interested in mothering her second-favorite daughter. Thus ensues Grace’s increasingly obsessive investigation into the circumstances around Nica’s death. Guided by suspect list that ranges from the dolty guidance counselor Shep, to Nica’s string of ex-boyfriends, to her own parents, Grace’s investigation simultaneously paves the path to her redemption and to her destruction.

Novel type: mystery thriller

My rating: 4/10

My review: This book was basically a disaster — and not in the natural kind of way. The plot was contrived and dominated by turns that were more lazy escapes from dead ends than creative twists. Further, Grace’s first-person narration was a mismatched patchwork of dreamily poetic – if unrealistic – memory sequences , Twilight-worthy teenage drama, and James Patterson’s formulaic mystery writing. With some good editing, this book might strike a healthy balance between the literary and the prosaic , but as it is, the reading is disjointed and forced.

The bottom line: this book did not deliver the summer chill I was hoping for. Eh, what’s a girl to do? Drag her husband to Jurassic World, of course! I’m off to the movies.

Read if you like: anything Gillian Flynn, but particularly Dark Places and Sharp Objects. And then prepare to be disappointed.

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