The Female of the Species

I don’t like Jack. From the moment he is introduced as a narrator, I think: what a boring, predictable, and cowardly character. 352 pages later, nothing has changed. Jack is a particularly flavorless adaptation of vanilla, but he’s utterly essential to this book.

Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species is not about Jack. It’s about Alex, Peekay, Branley, Sara, and Anna. It’s about women living in a world hostile to their very existence: their bodies, their sexuality, their minds, and their freedom. The shifting narratives of Alex, Peekay, and Jack weave a web of violence, guilt, survival, and lost love that rips, not tugs, at your heartstrings.

A lingering danger and the acrid taste of terror persist throughout each page of Alex and Peekay’s perspectives. Alex takes hold of this violence and identifies with its viperous fire, yearning its burn and the smell of blood, death, and vengeance – as long as it’s on her terms. Alex’s chapters demand my attention, goosebumps invading my skin as I follow her calculated footsteps through the lives of her peers and victims. I never feel afraid for Alex, but I do feel a curdling, sour fear in my stomach while reading about her predatory choices. They are not my choices, but I know I am capable of making them.

We are so much more dangerous than we want to believe.

A more palatable terror is Peekay’s perspective. Her cautious steps into womanhood are a familiar balance between prudence and provocation. Dancing between identities and desires, she missteps. I know it’s coming – the lines are ever grey and shifting, designed to trick and trap – but still, I cry. I cry because I, too, have scrubbed until my skin filled the tub with crimson and the water ran cold. Like Peekay, I step a little lighter now, watch a little closer, and wait a moment longer – just in case. Her story feels too much like my own, and so does her chapters’ silent screams of persistent unease.

Growing up on a diet of “required reading” for books about men and written by men has left me craving for titles by and about women. I’m not afraid to say that there’s nuance noticeably absent from too many of the classics. Those tired titles exploit expected themes of power, privilege, and attention right alongside the trope of the wise old mentor.

So, when McGinnis expertly copies this traditional masculine style throughout Jack’s chapters, I experience a sinking moment of submergence into the conventional. It’s not unwelcome. Jack’s sections are full of hero-esque inner monologues where the world is at his fingertips to pick and choose at as he pleases. Alex is particularly attractive to him because he just cannot figure her out, oh wow – but even this self-absorption proves invaluable in contrasting the different and yet same world of men and women. The juxtaposition of Jack’s easy entitlement – the one where bad things happen to him, but good things happen because of him – against the brisk undercurrent of terror that cuts through every moment, every word in Alex and Peekay’s chapters is impossible to miss. It’s a kind of violence of its own: a violence of living while female.

“But boys will be boys, our favorite phrase that excuses so many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is women, said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.”

-Mindy McGinnis, The Female of the Species

You might be wondering what this book is actually about. I’m afraid I’ll have to refer you to the book jacket because The Female of the Species is difficult to discuss without spoiling the way McGinnis’ drips details throughout her timely and harrowing coming-of-age tale. I will mention that while Alex, Peekay, and Jack are the novel’s main characters, they barely take center stage among a cast of equally interesting peers. While McGinnis plays with the recognizable caricatures of modern YA literature, never shying away from acknowledging that stereotypes exist for a reason, she shatters these flat expectations, rounding even the most minor of characters. I find particular depth within Branley – a girl we all know – whose story forces me to reexamine my own high school judgments.  McGinnis’ commitment to her characters is reminiscent of a journalist. Her small-town tragedy never feels like a fairytale of caution, but instead like I am reading a detailed, eyewitness account of a genuine tragedy. Perhaps I am.

The one criticism I have for The Female of the Species is the ending. While the last chapters feel realistic about their events and conclusion, their execution is sloppy and rushed. I want to savor the impending tragedy I know is coming. Instead, I find myself rereading the ending to be sure I haven’t missed an entire chapter – particularly one of Alex’s. Unfortunately, I have not, and the result leaves me feeling unsatisfied, hungry for more than a final silhouette of these characters I’ve come to intimately know and love.

You should read this book if you’re seeking reprieve from rose-colored literature and star-crossed lovers. The Female of the Species is neither pretty nor sweet. Its aftertaste is bitter, and its plot will leave you shifting uncomfortably in your seat, replaying memories of your adolescence under the harsh fluorescent lighting of retrospect.

It is, for me, exactly what I needed to read.

Reader’s Warning: this book graphically details teen and young adult rape, sexual assault, alcohol use, and violence. If you’re considering reading it, then I’m sure you know very well that none of these issues are fiction, only McGinnis’ characters are.

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