book review: the roanoke girls

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Broadway Books, 304 pp.
Published December 5, 2017

The Roanoke Girls

DISCLAIMER: I received a free finished copy of this book from Penguin Random House via Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

Summary (via Goodreads): "Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die."

After her mother's suicide, fifteen year-old Lane Roanoke came to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin, Allegra, on their vast estate in rural Kansas. Lane knew little of her mother's mysterious family, but she quickly embraced life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. But when she discovered the dark truth at the heart of the family, she and far away.

Eleven years later, Lane is adrift in Los Angeles when her grandfather calls to tell her Allegra has gone missing. Did she run too? Or something worse? Unable to resist his pleas, Lane returns to help search, and to ease her guilt at having left Allegra behind. Her homecoming may mean a second chance with the boyfriend whose heart she broke that long ago summer. But it also means facing the devastating secret that made her flee, one she may not be strong enough to run from again.

As it weaves between Lane's first Roanoke summer and her return, The Roanoke Girls shocks and tantalizes, twisting its way through revelation after mesmerizing revelation, exploring the secrets families keep and the fierce and terrible love that both binds them together and rips them apart.

My thoughts: As usual my review will not contain spoilers, but I'd like to begin with a general warning: The Roanoke Girls deals heavily with explicit sexual themes, few (or none) of which take place within healthy, consensual relationships. I'll offer my thoughts on how Amy Engel handles that subject matter a little further down, but if that disclaimer is enough to give you pause, then this may not be the novel (or review) for you. You can read my decidedly lighter review for La Belle Sauvage here, instead!

There are several elements in The Roanoke Girls which, when put together, should work well. A deeply dysfunctional family; a sprawling, isolated home in rural America; a young woman's disappearance; and a cast of morally grey characters, almost all of whom are working to further their own interests first. Yet the central, seedy hook—a dark truth hidden in the Roanoke family tree—starts weighing the story down over time. The secret actually gets revealed early on, yet remains undeveloped and unprobed for the bulk of the novel. It lingers heavily on every page, an inescapable fact of life for protagonist Lane and her female relatives, without providing momentum. Something so terrible should serve as an unstoppable engine, pulsing forward, rather than a discomforting anchor tied to an average mystery.

While Engel doesn't use this family secret (which deals with abuse) to its full potential, she does describe the behavior and its effects well. She shows how this kind of attention can hold a confusing appeal to impressionable young girls without ever romanticizing it in the eyes of a wiser reader. Her prose works best when dealing in innuendo rather than explicit description. Once the awful history of the Roanoke family is exposed, it requires very little to elicit strong reactions from a reader; Engel more often doubles down, saturating the story with a "tell, not show" approach that dulls any edge the shocking revelation once had.

Cousins Lane and Allegra are two more bright spots, well-developed and complex. My thoughts on Lane are torn: from a literary perspective, more introspection would have been a welcome change, and also helped to add depth to the sordid subject matter. Yet her ever-present rage still feels authentic, the defense of a survivor who has escaped but not yet healed. Hers is a difficult perspective to read, but there's an undeniable authenticity to it all the same.

The Roanoke Girls is best described as the pulpy cousin of Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. It has the makings of a neo-Southern Gothic, but gets too caught up in its own sordid details to reach its full potential. The subject material I've danced around will no doubt limit the audience for The Roanoke Girls. Even those who don't find it prohibitive, like myself, may still think the blunt approach weighs down an otherwise sprightly paced mystery. It's an average read, which is by no means a dismissal or condemnation. However, considering the weighty topics at hand, I need something better than average to make my way through.

RATING: ★★ ½


  1. Wonderful review! Your thoughts totally back up why I removed it from my TBR. I hope your next read is a bigger hit for you! :)

    1. I don't regret giving it a try, but I also wouldn't tell anyone else they *must* pick this one up either. Your TBR is probably better off with the pruning :)