Review: ‘In the Woods’

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In The Woods
By Tana French

  • Date Finished: March 14, 2015
  • Genre: Fiction, Mystery
  • Year: 2007
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Spring 2015
  • Grade: B-
  • Thoughts upon reading:

Even though I didn’t want to admit it to myself, I had really high hopes for In The Woods by Tana French. As a bookseller, I had heard many-many good things about it, from customers to people who had sold books for a very long time. I really had no idea what it was about; despite being familiar with many authors and titles, I actually make a point not to look into the plot beforehand if I know I’ll eventually read it – I like being surprised. And so, when I finally picked this book up earlier this month, I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

And at first, I was. In The Woods is, I guess, technically a mystery novel about an Irish detective , Rob, who is assigned to a strange case in which a young girl has turned up murdered, discovered at an ancient ceremonial site located where there once was a thick, dark, and even-more-ancient forest. The case is a personal one for Rob because it was in that very woods that his two best friends mysteriously disappeared more than two decades ago. Rob has no memory of what happened in the woods – in fact, all of his childhood memories prior to his teen years were wiped clean that day – and he was discovered with his shoes full of blood and supernatural-sized claw marks on the back of his shirt. Only Rob’s partner knows what happened in Rob’s past (Rob is now going by his middle name in an attempt to escape the past), but they decide to take the case anyway. Perhaps Rob will learn what happened to his best friends in 1984? Perhaps we’ll finally learn what lurks “in the woods”?

Those are all very good questions, but unfortunately (sorry, spoiler alert), they’re all rhetorical. Don’t get me wrong, this book started out great. The above-mentioned plot description sounds fascinating, right? Right! Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Tana French is a particularly lush and elegant writer, making the story a very enjoyable one to read.

Well, for awhile anyway. Unfortunately, the further this book plods along, the worse everything becomes (or, the terrible things start to stand out more). You realize how long the book is, and how it doesn’t really need to be that long. It’s primarily due to French’s insistence that she describe EVERYTHING that happens, including, but not limited to: the weather (surprise! it rains a lot!), the myriad of thoughts passing through Rob’s head at any given moment (because he’s our first-person narrator), what Rob is eating and drinking, what a sunset looks like, the way the wind feels when he’s walking into a building, the way the light plays with his partner’s curly brown hair. Suffice it to say, French’s “lush style” quickly becomes tiring and clunky about a third of the way in. Did anyone ever tell her that less is more? I’m not necessarily a big Hemingway fan, but girl, read some.

Plus, I’ve said this before about other books: first-person narrators can be tough, because eventually you reach a point where you’re yelling at the book, “All that can’t be going on inside his head at one time! No one can think all those things!”

And finally (again, sorry for any spoilers), I was really disappointed with the ending. I don’t necessarily want to say what happened, but it’s a big part of what spoiled this book for me. First of all, you spend so much time delving into the mystery in Rob’s past. This mystery was what kept my attention, especially since it all felt very Stephen King-esque. The normal explanations for what happened seemed to have been ruled out pretty quickly, including murder, running away, or abduction. Plus, no bodies were ever found, even after nearly the entire wood was razed in the succeeding 20 years. PLUS, what about what happened to Rob!? There were some allusions to a Pan-like mythical being that could have “stolen” the children, and I was really hoping the story would take that turn.

But … it didn’t. In fact (SPOILER ALERT), the modern day murder has absolutely nothing to do with what happened to Rob as a kid, with the real culprit actually being sort of prosaic (also, the fact that it took them so long to figure out THAT murder leads me to think Rob and his partner are terrible detectives). So, what about Rob’s past? Do we get to find out what happened? Does Rob ever remember? In lieu of giving you even more spoilers, I won’t say what DOES happen at the end of the book, but I will admit that I was disappointed and left wanting more.  *Shakes head*

Lastly, I found the whole Rob-Cassie relationship thing a little annoying at the end, as well (Cassie is Rob’s partner and  ostensibly his best friend since, as French reinforces every few pages, they are Very Close). First of all, I – as a reader, woman, and thinking human person – am able to comprehend the idea that a man and woman can be professional “partners,” can be “close,” and can even be “best friends,” without sex or romance getting in the way. I mean, hello? Has she seen Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson? I don’t think that portraying a close man-woman friendship, without any threat of romance, is a stretch by any means.

And yet, of course that’s what the whole mess devolves into at the end, and it was so disappointing. I realized that French, by initially presenting us with the Rob-Cassie friendship, was simply saying, “Oh look at how progressive and modern I am! We don’t need romance to keep you interested!” But then, three-quarters of the way through, the predictable happens, and it’s like, really!? I mean, seriously. Really? Was it necessary? No? Then WHY!?

Sigh. Lots of sighs, that’s what this book was full of. Yes, the story was compelling and interesting (especially at first). And French’s writing (if you overlook the bad parts) is pleasant and enjoyable to read. And I also really like how French links her books, taking a supporting character from one, and placing them at the center of the next, with entirely different plots. And yet, that means in French’s follow-up to In The Woods (The Likeness), we don’t find out what happens to poor Rob, as he basically disappears into sad obscurity (and probably to alcoholism). Again, disappointment.

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