In his frightening and fast-paced thriller Final Girls, Riley Sager gives us an inside look at what it means to be a survivor.
Quincy Carpenter has forged a relatively happy life for herself a decade after being surviving a massacre that killed her best friends and being dubbed a “final girl” by the media. Balking from the spotlight and her fellow final girls – Lisa, who survived a sorority house killing, and Sam, who took on a murderer during a shift at her motel job – Quincy has convinced herself that her past has been put to bed. But when Lisa turns up dead and Sam shows up on her doorstep, Quincy has to grapple with the less-than-pretty parts of her past she’d hoped were gone forever.
Final Girls in undeniably fun. Moving between the present and the day of the massacre that turned Quincy into a final girl, you’ll find yourself flipping pages at an almost absurd speed to get to the bottom of the central mystery. Stephen King himself has called the book a great thriller, and if that’s not adequate praise I’m not sure what is.
One of the books weaknesses, and part of what makes it so easy to read, is that Sager doesn’t dip below the surface and fully investigate what it means to be a survivor of trauma. It’s easier to stick to the exciting aspects of the story – murders, broken trust – than to really confront the issues at heart. Although we see through Quincy’s point of view how hard it is to shake the past and fully recover, Final Girls doesn’t dig into the real gritty truths of being a sole survivor and having to live with regret. And it was probably a smart choice for Sager to avoid getting bogged down in this psychological speak. Instead he could focus on writing a relatively light-hearted (if you can consider murder light-hearted) book about mystery and moving on.
If you like flawed characters, this might be the book for you. Quincy, who is described as a both a blood-covered almost-murder victim and a white blouse-wearing baking blogger, is complex in a simplistic way. The two sides of her – the one suffering from nightmares about knife-wielding men and the other praying her lawyer boyfriend will propose to her – are hard to reconcile. She has refused to deal with her past in a way that frustrates the other final girls, and has caused her trauma to build up inside of her to the point of explosion. Her boyfriend, a defence attorney who wishes Quincy would just get over it already is, at least in my humble opinion, a Grade A Asshole. In the perfect world he’s imagined in his mind, Quincy is a lovely and normal woman who will one day mother his children.
Sam, the final girl who arrived in combat boots at Quincy’s door, is perhaps the most stereotypical depiction of a person living with trauma. After spending years in hiding, she has returned to make Quincy confront her past despite never having met her before. She’s taken to wearing heavy makeup, being generally angry, and even committing petty crimes. While Quincy refuses to speak the name of the man who took her friends lives, Sam has no such reservations. She is in-your-face, manipulative, and more than a little off-putting.
All of these characters, despite their shortcomings, combine to make a compelling story. Sam pushes Quincy out of her comfort zone in a satisfying way, finally showing her that there’s more to life than taking pictures of cupcakes. Quincy’s relationships with the police officer who saved her adds a bit of romantic tension to the novel, making it all the more readable.
The true strength of Final Girls is Sager’s ability to build tension and anticipation. He drags out the story just enough that when the final act arrives, you will not see the truth coming. It’s an ideal read for October, sure to get you in the mood for Halloween.