Book Review: DEAD GIRLS: ESSAYS ON SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION by Alice Bolin

Laura Palmer. Lilly Kane. Harriet Vanger. “Amazing Amy” Dunne. We’re obsessed with dead girls and maybe-dead girls, both fictional and real. Alice Bolin’s essay collection, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, explores that premise through cultural criticism of true crime coverage, books, movies, and TV shows like Gone Girl, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, Joan Didion’s writings on the Manson murders, and more. There are also many essays about non-crime and crime fiction related topics.

Its title lets it down, since you’ll likely be disappointed if you go into this book expecting more “dead girl” content than it delivers. (That part makes up about a third of the book, with the more general essays making up the rest.) Alice Bolin is an excellent writer and I enjoyed the essays on their own merits, but as an essay collection, this book doesn’t hang together all that well.

You can read my full review below.


Dead Girls Cover

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

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  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: June 26, 2018
  • length: 288 pages

“I didn’t hate and fear all women,” Nick says defensively in Gone Girl. “I was a one-woman misogynist. If I despised only Amy, if I focused all my fury and rage and venom on the one woman who deserved it, that didn’t make me my father.” Aren’t they all one-woman misogynists?

–from Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

My experience of reading Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession was a frustrating one. I signed onto this book expecting what it says right there on the tin: essays about the American (probably global?) obsession with “dead girls,” and what that means for the very-much-alive girls and women who live in a world full of that kind of laden, violent imagery.

The problem is that a good deal of this book isn’t about dead girls at all. It’s also full of more personal essays about Bolin’s experience in the American West, her move to L.A., her family, her experience navigating white womanhood, her favorite books, an incompatible boyfriend, and more.

These essays are beautifully written: poignant, sharp, elegant, neurotic in a self-aware and interesting way. They’re genuinely great! They just weren’t what I thought I was going to get, and because of that, the latter two-thirds of this book were a slog.

The first third had me jazzed. I zipped through it, highlighting what felt like every other paragraph. My favorite essay, “The Husband Did It,” is largely about Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn’s characterization of hapless, pathetic, misogynistic husband Nick Dunne, and it’s a straight banger: Bolin is witty, funny, and sharp as a tack, and here is where it shone the best. Gone Girl is one of my favorite books (I also love the movie adaptation), and it was a delight to see it through Bolin’s eyes.

But as soon as I hit the second third of the book, titled “Lost in Los Angeles,” all the zip left. Bolin turns her eye from more widely known cultural touchstones (True Detective, iconic true crime cases, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) towards more obscure texts, and she starts diving deeper into her own experiences. In particular, she writes seemingly endlessly about Joan Didion, and while I’m always up for reading about Joan Didion (truly!), it felt like a record scratch. I got why Didion’s work is important to Bolin–I just didn’t understand why that should be important to me.

Maybe I’m falling into the exact same trap Bolin is excoriating here–after all, I’m saying that I was far more interested in the “dead” part than the “surviving” part, which is exactly the problem with “dead girl” culture. And I do think Bolin is doing an interesting thing here: setting out a theory of dead girls and their effect on our culture, and then applying it to her own life.

But the flow is all wrong, and it bothered me tremendously. I don’t know if this discordance is Bolin’s “fault” (not the right word to use here, but the best fit I can think of) or her publisher’s. I know that it’s rare for authors to choose their titles. I know that editors have a say in organizing the order of a collection. They certainly have a say in how a book is marketed, and in setting readers’ expectations for what a book will be like, through everything from blurb choice to cover design.

And all the choices that the publisher made here left me feeling baited and switched.

The best fix I can think of would be to publish this as two books. Split the dead girl content from the more general content, add more essays to both to compensate, and then publish two collections whose promises line up with what they actually deliver.

Had I read each of these essays individually, I can practically guarantee I would have loved them unreservedly. Even the ones that I think work less well than the others are still very good. But as one book meant to be read altogether, Dead Girls falters. There’s just not enough connective tissue to keep you hooked from essay to essay.

Dead Girls is full of treasures, but they’re best enjoyed one by one instead of consecutively. Either read it in small doses or skip it–taken as a cohesive collection, I think this one’s a dud. ★★★☆☆

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I purchased my own copy of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.26.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

It’s like I learned nothing from last week! I kept buying books way faster than I’m reading them. (Shout out to Book Riot’s daily book deals newsletter, which is the best worst thing that’s ever happened to me.) Luckily my reading slump seems to have broken and I’m back to reading more, if not quite enough. Expect some interesting book reviews coming soon.

Let’s dive into all my bad great decisions this week!


The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

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The Poet X Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.”

why I’m excited: Slam poetry–its fiercely loving community and its empowering vulnerability–are ripe for a YA novel, especially one about an Afro Latina girl fighting rape culture and abuse. That premise + myriad rave reviews and awards mean that this book is guaranteed to make me Feel Things. I can’t wait.

The Emissary by Yōko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)

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The Emissary Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“Japan, after suffering from a massive irreparable disaster, cuts itself off from the world. Children are so weak they can barely stand or walk: the only people with any get-go are the elderly. Mumei lives with his grandfather Yoshiro, who worries about him constantly. They carry on a day-to-day routine in what could be viewed as a post-Fukushima time, with all the children born ancient—frail and gray-haired, yet incredibly compassionate and wise. Mumei may be enfeebled and feverish, but he is a beacon of hope, full of wit and free of self-pity and pessimism. Yoshiro concentrates on nourishing Mumei, a strangely wonderful boy who offers “the beauty of the time that is yet to come.”

A delightful, irrepressibly funny book, The Emissary is filled with light. Yoko Tawada, deftly turning inside-out “the curse,” defies gravity and creates a playful joyous novel out of a dystopian one, with a legerdemain uniquely her own.”

why I’m excited: Researching nuclear disaster is a hobby of mine (sort of related to a novel I’m writing, sort of just because I find it fascinating), so the connection to Fukushima sold me on this book immediately. It also looks short, sweet, and funny, meaning it’s going to be a good in-between book if I’m getting bogged down in heavier, denser stuff. It’s either going to be weird and off-putting, or weird and great. Either way, it’ll be interesting!

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

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Young Jane Young Coverthe premise: From Amazon:

“Aviva Grossman, an ambitious congressional intern in Florida, makes the mistake of having an affair with her (married) boss. When the affair comes to light, the popular congressman doesn’t take the fall. But Aviva does, and her life is over before it hardly begins: slut-shamed, she becomes a late-night talk show punch line, anathema to politics. She sees no way out but to change her name and move to a remote town in Maine. This time, she tries to be smarter about her life and strives to raise her daughter, Ruby, to be strong and confident. But when, at the urging of others, Aviva decides to run for public office, that long-ago mistake trails her via the Internet and catches up—an inescapable scarlet A. In the digital age, the past is never, ever, truly past. And it’s only a matter of time until Ruby finds out who her mother was and is forced to reconcile that person with the one she knows.”

why I’m excited: This basically feels like Monica Lewinsky: The Novel, and I’m here for it. Ripped-from-the-headlines stories can get creepy and/or ham-handed, fast, but this novel sounds self-aware, complex (I particularly love the idea of the intergenerational stuff between Aviva and Ruby), and funny enough to sidestep those pitfalls. Fingers crossed!

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Dead Girls Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“A collection of poignant, perceptive essays that expertly blends the personal and political in an exploration of American culture through the lens of our obsession with dead women.

In her debut collection, Alice Bolin turns a critical eye to literature and pop culture, the way media consumption reflects American society, and her own place within it. From essays on Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, Bolin illuminates our widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster a man’s story.”

why I’m excited: I’m obsessed with the dead girls obsession, so this looks about perfect for me. Earlier this year I read The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick, a book with a somewhat similar premise, which I didn’t love. The essay excerpt of The Hot One over at The Cut contained all the best parts of that book and trimmed the bits I didn’t like, so I’m hoping that essays might be a better format with which to tackle the topic. I’m very much looking forward to this.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!