If you’ve been floating around the bookish community over the past few months, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve already heard of Bonfire. But in case you haven’t, let’s recap:
Bonfire is a suspense/psychological thriller novel by Krysten Ritter, who, prior to penning this novel, was best known for being an actress in shows like Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 (hilarious), Breaking Bad (I’m still pissed off at Walter White for this one), and Jessica Jones.
Bonfire tells the story of Abby Williams, an environmental lawyer living in Chicago who ends up returning to her small, rural hometown of Barrens, Indiana for a case revolving around the town’s new factory, Optimal, and their possible contamination of the water supply. But along with the perils of returning to a place she’s run from (a topic which has always interested me in literature and film), the Optimal case also ends up sucking Abby back into old scandals—like the disappearance of her former best friend and the high school’s resident mean girl, Kaycee Mitchell, as well as a nude photo scandal and general shadiness from the town’s residents. Small towns are never short on scandals, and Barrens is no exception—but Abby could never have prepared herself for how all these things are related and the spiral they are about to lead her down.
I chose Bonfire as my November Book of the Month, and, as I mentioned in my November book haul, it was the first time in my history of Book of the Month that I chose my book instantly (admittedly without even really paying much attention to the other options). I’ve been wanting this book for months and wondering how it would be, so there was no doubt in my mind that it was the perfect pick!
Of course, I went into it with a healthy amount of apprehension. For one thing, I’ve already been burned once this month on the subject of starting a book that has been raved about by the masses and going into it with extremely high expectations only to be dropped straight to my face from such a great height, so I really wasn’t in the mood to go through that kind of betrayal again.
But I digress.
My main reason for treading carefully into this one is that I have what I would consider a healthy amount of apprehension for actresses who kind of suddenly decide to branch out into writing books a la the likes of Lauren Conrad, Hilary Duff, and Bella Thorne. And let’s be serious, whether you love their acting or not (after all, as an early 2000s tween, I have a deeply rooted love for Lizzie McGuire Hilary Duff), these forays into another medium aren’t always exactly churning out literary masterpieces, and more often than not prompt readers to caution said actresses not to quit their extremely glamorous day jobs.
At one point in Bonfire, Ritter describes a character as “the kind of girl you could only get close to the way you have to creep sideways toward a wild animal, not making eye contact so it won’t run away.” And that is not unlike the caution with which I approached this book, only to find out…
Homegirl can actually write.
And I am so glad, because for one thing, I wanted to love this book. And for another thing, I really like Ritter from what I’ve seen of her so far, and I would like to see her prove people wrong and prove that some people are multi-faceted enough to work in multiple mediums of art.
There are a lot of things to like about this book, not the least of which is the writing itself. I found this novel to be incredibly well written, with a distinctive writing style which I hope Ritter holds tight to and possibly develops even further, and a strong, unwavering voice throughout. Everything from the descriptions to the dialogue were realistic, well done, and not overly flowery, which I love.
Of all the things about this book, though, I would say that the one thing that Ritter absolutely nailed—just a total homerun, right out of the park (I don’t know how to sports, I’m sorry, I hope this metaphor makes sense)—is the setting. I don’t know much about Ritter’s own background, so I don’t know if she is originally from a small town not unlike Barrens, Indiana, and was therefore able to draw from her own life experience, and to be honest, it doesn’t even really matter. What matters is that she nailed it. I am from a small town not unlike Barrens, and in reading her descriptions of the setting and all the ways she brings it to life—from the people in the town, to the way the houses look, to the businesses, to what is considered the “rich part of town” (“which for Barrens means a basketball hoop, aboveground pool, and separate bedroom for Brent, his older sister, and their parents”), every single detail about it was spot on and it felt like she was describing the town where I grew up. Barrens came to life before my very eyes, and is the kind of setting that serves its purpose not just as the location where the story takes place, but also as another character that is very much alive between the pages.
The rest of the cast of characters—the human characters, in this case—are fairly well written as well. I felt like I could get to know most of the characters (with the exception of some of the junior partners on Abby’s team who meant so little to her that they didn’t even get real names, instead being dubbed “Flora” for wearing a floral shirt and “Portland” for looking like a hipster. Needless to say, those few characters were little more than slightly-functioning paper dolls, but perhaps that was our narrator’s intention). The majority of them were very human and believable, and seemed like people you could really know or come across in real life. I especially liked Joe and the way he functioned as not just a best friend, but also a polar opposite and counterpart to Abby. It was a good way for Abby to see herself in the ways she was different from her main companion.
I also really loved the humor in this book, and despite its mostly dark subject matter, I found it quite funny at times, imbued with the dry humor that is not only one of my favorite types, but also suits our main protagonist, Abby, quite well, if I may say so myself.
“I reach a receptionist. Possibly, it’s the same receptionist at every doctor’s office, rental car agency, and health insurance claim office I’ve ever called. Possibly, there is only one in the whole world, and she rotates her bored inflection from desk to desk, like a Santa Claus who brings nothing but not giving a shit.”
Of course, being a suspense/thriller novel, I believe much of the merit of the book hinges on its plot. For the most part, I really enjoyed the plot. I thought it did an excellent job of driving the book forward and kept me turning pages frantically as I waited to see what was going to happen next. Best of all, this plot actually kept me guessing, and was complex enough that I didn’t exactly guess it right from the get go—which is a really fast way to ruin a thriller—without being so complex that it just seemed absurd.
My only dislikes about this book are mostly related to the plot, and, however minute (and truly, they’re quite tiny) they might be, I think they still bear mentioning, so before I do that I am going to take this opportunity to flank this section with spoiler warnings. If you have not read this book yet and don’t want me to spoil possibly important plot points, scroll PAST this section until you see the “Spoilers End Here” announcement, and then you’ll be in the clear! Keep reading after the spoilers end here announcement for my final wrap up and star rating of the book!
Okay, all the spoiler people are gone? Good.
So there were only a couple of little plot points in Bonfire that I found either unbelievable or that I thought just didn’t make much sense. The first one is miniscule, but bears mentioning, and that’s the concept of how people talk to and about Abby when she returns to her small hometown after living in Chicago. So many people say things to her like, “you were the one that got out” or “you’re a local celebrity”, and while, yes, I do believe that that is very much a small town mentality, I just found it hard to believe that that many people would comment on it to her or make such overblown comments. Even in a small town where very few people ever leave or pursue a different life, I still don’t think the person who “got away” would ever be viewed as any sort of celebrity. Honestly, I think it is much more likely that the townspeople, being endlessly absorbed in the minutiae of their small town life, would just forget about anyone who left, molding back together like a gap in the fog to fill the space left by the person who moved way to the big city. I’m from a small town, too, and I just don’t think people think that way or really react that way—at least not to such an extent.
The next point that I thought didn’t make much sense, or at the very least didn’t have enough to back it up, was the plot point regarding Kaycee Mitchell leaving Abby’s dog’s collar in her locker (after killing the dog). After spending the entire book painting this as something that Kaycee did because she was just a sick, messed up individual—which I completely bought, by the way, because if she would poison the dog out of jealousy in the first place, she obviously is sick and messed up—it is revealed at the end that in fact she didn’t leave it in Abby’s locker to bully and traumatize her, but instead to use it as a clue, attempting to cryptically convey to Abby that just like Kaycee had poisoned the dog, Kaycee herself was being poisoned, too.
Sorry, not buying it.
I’m sorry, but this connection is about as thin as a thread of spider’s silk, except much less strong. I just think we need a lot more to support an assumption that tenuous than just tossing in a little comment close to the end of the book saying, “Oh, Kaycee loved clues and puzzles! It must be a clue!” I’m just not buying it, and I can’t really tell if the author is trying too hard to connect this clue and make it make sense in a way that it doesn’t, or if the narrator is just trying so hard to justify it in some way and is reading way too far into it. Either way, I didn’t like it.
Nothing after this is going to reveal any major spoilers, but I will say that the only other thing I possibly disliked about the book was that at times it did feel a little bit like Ritter was writing the lead role as a role for herself to play. This may be stretching, and admittedly, perhaps I just feel like this because Ritter is already an actress in addition to writing. To be fair, I think a lot of writers—whether intentionally or unintentionally—end up doing this exact thing, but I found myself noticing it more in this book. Then again, it’s not hard to draw the connection between Ritter and some of the roles she is best known for and a main character with long dark hair, boots, a leather jacket, and a dry sense of humor. Whether or not other readers like or even notice such a connection will solely come down to personal preference.
All in all, there really wasn’t much I disliked about this book. I only mention the couple of (so, so) small drawbacks to be entirely fair, as I always try to do in my reviews. That being said, though, I loved this book. Truly, truly loved it. I related to the main character in a lot of ways, was truly impressed with the writing and setting, the plot kept me guessing, and overall I just really, really enjoyed reading this and am so grateful to the author for putting out such a quality work.
Starwise, I would give this a 4.5/5 stars, and I definitely recommend it! It may even sneak its way in as a gift for some of my loved ones this holiday season. *wink wink*.
And if Krysten Ritter continues to pursue her writing career (which I hope she does), I’ll definitely purchase her future releases.
Has anyone else read Bonfire? What did you think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! You know I’d love to talk. <3