The End of Everything
by Megan Abbott
Published by Reagan Arthur/Little Brown
246 pages, 2011
Reviewed by Brendan M. Leonard
Megan Abbott makes glass sculptures filled with blood. Her new book, The End of Everything, is no exception. Her prose is beautiful, fragile, and it courses through the pages with a pulsing power. She stains and scars your memory. To read her is to be reminded of Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception (2010), standing still as that shocking wave crashes around him. While you’re turned head over heels with each new sentence, she hits you again and again. You experience guilt, terror, passion, nostalgia, regret -- and that’s just the short list. Every word is overwhelming and heartbreaking. You could drown in it. Part of you wants to.
At once a perfect fit with Abbott’s past work, overflowing with the sense that something here just isn’t right (or, as Bob Dylan sang, “There’s something happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”), The End of Everything marks a departure from her previous novels as well. Focusing on the relationship between two teenage girls and the aftermath of one’s sudden disappearance, this new book trades the sweaty environs of a noir-infused past for the crushing confusion of adolescence in contemporary suburbia (though the book is actually set in the late 1970s or early ’80s).
I hear you rolling your eyes -- do we really need another book about pretty white people and their pretty white people problems, especially after folks like Tom Perotta (Little Children) and Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides) did it so well? But as with much of crime fiction, it’s the singer, not just the song, that matters; and in these pages Abbott offers a mournful, Marianne Faithfull-like song to the dark, unidentifiable urges of adolescence, with roots that go so, so deep.
Consider this passage from midway through The End of Everything. In it, Abbott’s 13-year-old protagonist, Lizzie Hood, is standing outside the house of a family whose father is a suspect in the abduction of her best friend, Evie Verver:
The fairy tale currents run strong through The End of Everything, as Lizzie stumbles through her own, private investigation of Evie’s disappearance. Her pursuit of knowledge is filled with twists and turns through the metaphorical woods, and with every zig that Abbott zags, it’s a fresh punch to your gut, a bruise on your soul. It’s something that she excelled at in her earlier work, The Song Is You (2007), keeping you guessing, although you go into it thinking you already know the answers.
Abbott fills her story with a bevy of small details that linger. She captures the way rumors spread among adolescents, and she evokes that era when “serial killers” and “child abductors” were just becoming household terms. Although an older Lizzie narrates this novel, every chapter offers up vivid descriptions of a suburban, childhood summer -- swimming at the pool, field hockey matches and warm, late nights.
The relationship between Lizzie and Evie is central to The End of Everything, and Abbott’s got such a gift for writing female relationships that to praise it would merely be repetitive. Furthermore, Abbott creates memorable female characters alongside these two girls. Evie’s elder sister, Dusty, is pretty and popular, both looked up to and feared. Lizzie’s mother is somewhat distant, but moves beyond cliché, particularly in the book’s last chapters.
Yet one cannot talk about The End of Everything without discussing Evie’s father, Mr. Verver, as he is both the central figure in this novel and one of Abbott’s finest creations. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Lizzie has a crush on him from very early in the game, and that her feelings for him affect many of her actions after Evie vanishes. Abbott makes Mr. Verver seem a very familiar figure, both the cool dad and the hot dad. But he’s puzzling as well, especially as you begin to wonder whether he loves daughter Dusty a little too much -- and whether his seemingly innocent actions were worse than those of the man who ran off with Evie. As with so much of The End of Everything, this is a character who never behaves quite like you expect.
At one point in the novel, Lizzie asks, “Did it happen like this? I don’t know. But it’s how I remember it.” After finishing Abbott’s yarn, I found myself wondering that same thing. The mysteries lurking within The End of Everything are never quite resolved; they continue to haunt the reader. Long after turning the last page, I still wonder about Lizzie’s motivations, her reliability as a narrator, because under those questions is a beating, bloody, forbidden heart. This is a book I’m turning over in my head, trying to figure it out. Believe me when I say that Abbott takes her latest book to some emotionally devastating places that conjure comparisons to Joyce Carol Oates instead of James Ellroy.
The End of Everything is more than a novel you can’t put down, although it’s that as well. This is a psychological story of adolescence that’s both too simple and too mystifying to call a “thriller.” It lifts Megan Abbott to a new level as a writer of crime fiction and of literature -- much like Don Winslow’s Savages put him on a higher plane -- and will stay with you no matter how much it hurts to remember. | August 2011
Brendan M. Leonard lives in New York City. He is a January Magazine contributing editor as well as a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet. You can also find him blogging in Here’s the Thing ... with Brendan M. Leonard, or follow him on Twitter.