Bonfireby Published 07 Nov 2017
Should you ever go back?
It has been ten years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all visible evidence of her small town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career, a modern apartment, and her pick of meaningless one-night stands.
But when a new case takes her back home to Barrens, Indiana, the life Abby painstakingly created begins to crack. Tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town's most high-profile company and economic heart, Abby begins to find strange connections to Barrens’ biggest scandal from more than a decade ago involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her closest friends—just before Kaycee disappeared for good.
Abby knows the key to solving any case lies in the weak spots, the unanswered questions. But as Abby tries to find out what really happened to Kaycee, she unearths an even more disturbing secret—a ritual called “The Game,” which will threaten the reputations, and lives, of the community and risk exposing a darkness that may consume her.
With tantalizing twists, slow-burning suspense, and a remote, rural town of just five claustrophobic miles, Bonfire is a dark exploration of the question: can you ever outrun your past?
Going into this book, I had no idea who Krysten Ritter was. It was only when I went to the Goodreads page just now that I realized she's an actress. So I had approached this as I would any hyped thriller with an enticingly fiery cover. Unfortunately, though, I found Bonfire to have a recycled plot that lacked a certain juicy nastiness I like in my thrillers.
And isn't this a story we've seen a thousand times?
Maybe it's just me, but I feel like I've read countless versions of a woman escaping her smalltown life, only to grow up and become a detective or lawyer or whatever and return to solve a mystery and face all the people and unresolved issues of her past. I even think I've read a bunch of romance variations on this plot, too. It reminds me a little of Sharp Objects, but Ritter is no Gillian Flynn.
I felt like Ritter was trying to capture the "evil teen girls" vibe that so many authors want to tap into. The protagonist - Abby Williams - has a lot of personal demons and they're mostly related to the bullying she endured during her schooldays. Though I think this intense world of teenage girldom has been explored much better by other authors, from Megan Abbott to Abigail Haas.
Bonfire sees Abby, now an environmental lawyer, returning to her hometown and hoping to uncover the truth about Optimal, a plastics corporation. Abby believes Optimal has been polluting the town's water supply and caused a string of unexplained illnesses among her classmates years ago. One of whom disappeared. The classmates in question claimed it was a harmless prank, but Abby's convinced otherwise.
I completely appreciate the importance of environmental pollution issues but I've got to say-- it's a bit of a hard sell as a compelling thriller. I only recall Paolo Bacigalupi doing it successfully. There was just never a moment when the book took hold of me and made me desperate to know the answers.
It was also just very unconvincing overall. I couldn't understand why Abby was so adamant that the pollution took place when even those who got sick claimed it wasn't true. It's not a spoiler to state the obvious - there is something more going on, but I don't know why Abby would think that. And Bonfire relies heavily on Abby conveniently remembering, forgetting, or deducing (quite incredibly) as needed. Abby makes many tenuous connections between some clue - that fell into her lap - and the truth, whilst jumping to conclusions that I doubt anyone would have made.
Also thought it was strange how Abby quickly developed TWO romantic relationships with the men of Barrens, but it didn't have any impact on the story whatsoever.
There is a moment at the climax of the novel which is easily the most thrilling of the whole book, and it was my favourite part, but the culprit will come as a surprise to few. They were so obviously shady that I had almost convinced myself they were a glaring red herring.
The climax leads into an extremely rushed ending-- we discover the villain, witness a face-off, and wrap it all up in the last fifteen pages of the book. Messy and disappointing.
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Solid 3.5 stars
Bonfire is an addictive mystery about corporate greed and small town scandals.
After 10 years of living in anonymity in Chicago, environmental lawyer Abby Williams returns to her tiny hometown Barrens, Indiana to investigate Optimal Plastics, a corporation that not only fuels the town’s economy, but also saturates Barrens with its philanthropic efforts. Residents of Barrens are getting sick, and Abby believes their illnesses are a result of water contamination caused by Optimal. Abby, who was tormented and bullied throughout high school is desperate to uncover the dirt on Optimal, as she believes the corporation is not only harming the residents of Barrens, but also led to the illness of childhood best friend and high school frenemy, Kaycee Mitchell.
Flashback 10 years ago: Kaycee Mitchell was the “It” girl at Barrens High School. She and her group of minions created “The Game,” which worked to torment and bully their peers. Kaycee and her minions made Abby’s life a living hell. When Kaycee begins getting sick, her illness "spreads" to her group of friends. Once Kaycee's friends admit their illness was a hoax, she goes missing never to be seen agian.
Upon her return to Barrens, Abby must confront her teenage enemies, her high school crush, and her abusive father. Fueled by her obsession with Optimal and Kaycee, her behavior spirals out of control putting her in imminent danger.
Bonfire is a compulsive read that hooked me from the start. I loved the dark, snarky tone and felt like Ritter did a stellar job of fleshing out the town of Barrens. Abby is a strong, yet unreliable narrator. In the back of my head, I kept picturing her as Jessica Jones without superpowers! The mystery surrounding Kaycee drew me in. My only complaint is that the last ¾ unravels and becomes a bit convoluted. Overall, this is an impressive debut by Krysten Ritter!
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Yes, Krysten Ritter is the star of Netflix's JESSICA JONES, but this thriller is damn good independent of its celebrity author. It's addicting and gritty and fast-paced. Hope you get obsessed too!
Impressive debut for Ritter! When you see a famous person crossing over into a medium they are not known for, you worry it could be cringe-worthy or a total disaster. But, she does a pretty good job jumping right into the middle of the mystery/thriller genre and does a lot better than some more famous books (I am looking at you The Girl on the Train).
Now, all that being said, if this was the 10th book from a well-established author, some might not be quite as impressed. There are a few clichéd tropes that felt a little forced and some coincidences to move the story along. I go back my defense of this being her first effort. When you think of it that way, it is not too distracting. I would probably do the same thing if I ever write a book!
I have no problem recommending this book to anyone who likes a good thriller. Also, I hear that one of Ritter’s goals is to write, and encourage others to write, stories with strong female leads. So, if you like female leads, this is for you!
Side note: The book takes place in Indiana. I live in Indiana. It is not too big of a deal, but I am not sure how much Ritter familiarized herself with the geography of the state before writing. At one point, the main character talks about her home town being on her way between Chicago and New York (Northern Indiana). Then she mentions being in Southern Indiana. Then she talks about it being near I-70 – if a town is on I-70 it is either in Western, Central, or Eastern Indiana. So, yeah, if you are not from the state it probably doesn’t matter – but I was a little confused!
This is an atmosphere drenched and compelling crime debut from Krysten Ritter set in Barrens, a small town in Indiana. As children, Abby Williams and Kaycee Mitchell were best friends, only for Kaycee to turn on Abby with her coterie of friends at school. Hating her father and her miserable life, Abby is the one that got away. She lives in Chicago and is a environmental lawyer, returning to Barrens after a decade away, to investigate Optimal Plastics, a corporation that singlehandedly saved Barrens from economic and social devastation. It funds a number of social enterprises, provides scholarships and employment, and is at the heart of the community, with the majority of the town fiercely loyal to the company. Optimal is, however, dogged by rumours of corruption, contaminating the water supply and more. Abby may have moved away from Barrens, but Barrens and its secrets have never left her. This time she wants answers to the past, only to find that the past looms large in the present.
Abby arrives in Barren with a group that includes her best friend, Joe, a black gay lawyer, setting up office on the Gallagher farm. They find a community hostile to their presence and the threat they represent. Two complainants drop their claims, but they continue to probe. Abby finds herself confronted by ghosts from the past, from the meanest girl, Mischa, who is now Vice Principal at Barren High School to her father who is a shadow of his former self. Haunted by Kaycee, a talented painter, telling her that problem is not that she cannot draw but that she does not see, Abby is convinced there is a connection with Kaycee and their current investigation into Optimal. Kaycee was popular, a born liar, poisoned Abby's dog, involved in the deplorable Game and blackmail, and apparently pretended to be sick with her friends to scam payments from Optimal and left Barrens soon after. However, Abby had seen Kaycee coughing up blood and displaying other worrying symptoms, and knows Kaycee was sick. Abby strikes up a relationship with Condor and Brent, and finds her drinking is spiralling out of control, all too aware that she is drawn to things that hurt the most. As all those close to her abandon her, questioning her conviction that the past and Kaycee is relevant and connected to Optimal, Abby finds her sanity is on the line as the past threatens to bury her.
Krysten Ritter has written a gripping and beautifully written crime debut. It is tense and suspenseful, drawing in the reader with ease. The greatest strengths of the book lie in the complex character creation and development of Abby, a woman who wants to come to terms with the past so that she can be alive in the present. Ritter presents a picture of a woman paying a heavy price as she gets closer to the truth, no-one believes her, yet despite her life disintegrating around her, she clings on with a tenuous grip with determination. She wants to do right by her childhood friend, Kaycee, even though Kaycee is a less than admirable character. The portrayal of Barren and its community is done remarkably well. I loved this brilliant book and whilst it does have its flaws, I recommend it highly. Many thanks to Random House Cornerstone for an ARC.