Richard and Judy Review The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
"The search for the truth about Lane’s missing cousin forms the centre of this spider’s web of a story"
Lane has good reason to be disturbed by the fact Allegra has vanished. All the Roanoke girls have died, disappeared or taken their own lives. Why should Allegra be spared?
The search for the truth about Lane’s missing cousin forms the centre of this spider’s web of a story, and the web analogy is appropriate because the spider lurking at its heart is Yates, the shockingly corrupt grandfather, a man who clearly believes he has the divine right to do as he pleases.
He is helped by the fact that the little town where the family live, Osage Flats, is extraordinarily isolated. And yet there are many who know exactly what Yates is doing – the housekeeper, the foreman of the ranch and even some of the townspeople.
But somehow Lane’s grandfather manages to sail serenely through his own warped story, charming everyone with his blend of good looks and easy charm. It clearly has never crossed his mind that he might one day be brought to justice. Perhaps the fact that the Roanokes are rich is another layer of security, the family money coming from the oil discovered on their ranch, although the iconic fields of rolling, swaying corn still stretch in all directions like an ocean.
Will Lane navigate her way to the truth? You’ll be gripped finding out.
"Engel pulls no punches."
Engel goes where angels fear to tread in this masterful, sweeping story, strong on place (set in the middle of the great rolling cornfields and empty skies of Kansas) and even stronger on its twisted but utterly compelling theme – the exploitation of a whole family of women; women who, as far as the outside world is concerned, have it all. After all, they are Roanoke girls.
Engel pulls no punches. Not many pages into the novel we have a powerful scene between Lane, who ran away from the sprawling Roanoke family ranch years before, and the grandfather she hasn’t seen until her return, triggered by the sudden disappearance of her young cousin Allegra. It hits you right between the eyes, pow. And we’re still only on page 33. What follows is a story of utter intensity and believability. A mini-masterpiece.
This is one hell of a story. Was it as intense an experience writing it as it is to read?
Honestly, I don’t think it was, or at least not intense in any sort of fraught way. For such a dark and disturbing book, the actual writing of it was almost pure joy. I never suffered any writer’s block while working on The Roanoke Girls and everything flowed from day one. I know that many of the characters are awful people, but I loved every single one of them and didn’t have any trouble stepping into their heads (not sure what that reveals about me!). On some level the writing was intense because it came so quickly and I was so immersed in the book and characters, but it was an overwhelmingly positive experience all the way through.
It’s a particularly provocative book. Was that your intention from the outset or did it evolve into something as challenging as this?
What a good question. I know some people might find this hard to believe, but it was never my intention for this book to shock the reader. Maybe it’s my time spent as a criminal defense attorney, but as I was writing I truly didn’t think the subject or storyline was all that shocking. Heartbreaking and disturbing, for sure, but not shocking. Because, as much as we might not want to admit it, things like this happen every day in houses that look perfectly normal from the outside. So no, I wasn’t setting out to be intentionally provocative with this book. Having said that, once I settled on the broad strokes of the story and started to delve more deeply into each girl’s history, there were definitely areas I wanted to explore that I knew might make some readers uncomfortable. While I didn’t ‘go there’ for the express purpose of being provocative, it is probably fair to say that I didn’t shy away from pushing readers out of their comfort zones a little. I think there is value in facing things that make us squirm, in looking directly at the uglier parts of human nature. There is something to be gained in acknowledging our own reactions to the things we’d rather turn away from.
You live in Missouri but your descriptions of remote Kansas are powerful and emotive. You must have spent a lot of time there.
Yes, I have spent a lot of time in rural Kansas. My mother grew up in a very small town in southeastern Kansas and my great-grandparents lived there until their deaths when I was in college. So growing up I spent quite a lot of time in that part of the world. The rhythms and traditions of small town Kansas are intimately familiar to me. Even now, I can close my eyes and smell, see, hear, and practically taste my summers spent there. The town park, the slides and carousel, the heat, the sound of the cicadas, the ice cream stand, claw foot bathtubs, homemade ice cream, and sliding-into-oblivion small towns are all taken directly from my memories.
You are of course known for your series The Book of Ivy, for younger readers. This is your first novel for adults. Tell us how you made the shift to writing for an older audience.
It actually wasn’t a difficult shift. Whether I’m writing for adults or for teens, my process and focus are very similar. For me, character is always king and that’s my beginning point for any novel. The main difference with writing for adults is the ability to go to darker places in more blunt terms. I also feel a little less responsibility for my readers when I’m writing for adults. When writing for teens, I’m keenly aware of the searching, often confusing stage of life they are in, and I want to make sure I am sensitive to that. With adults, for better or worse, I think less about the impact on the reader and simply tell the story I need and want to tell.
- Discuss the complex relationship between Lane and Allegra
- Discuss the structure of the novel
- Lane and Cooper’s relationship is described at the end of the novel as a ‘second chance’. What do you think the future holds for Lane?
- Discuss the small town setting of the novel and what this adds to the story