On the surface, The Female of the Species is a story of love and friendship in the last year of high school. Senior year is fraught with panic and pitfalls as students navigate young love, sex, partying and popularity or the lack of it, all while making decisions about their future. PeeKay, the Preacher’s Kid, is a typical teen, drinking, dating, and rebelling within limits. She and Alex are doing their Senior Year Experience at the local animal shelter, bonding over the animals they care for and finding friendship. Meanwhile, Jack and Alex are in competition for class valedictorian. As they get to know each other, they begin to fall in love. It would all be so typical, except Alex is not your typical teen.
The Female of the Species grabs you from the first sentence of the first chapter that introduces us to Alex, “This is how I kill someone.” Do not mistake this for hyperbole. That first chapter makes it very clear it is not. Her sister, Anna, was raped and murdered in a gruesome event that traumatized the entire community. Her killer appeared to get away with it before he, too, was tortured and killed. This sets Alex apart, people are uncomfortable around her and she has no social graces. Nonetheless, with Jack and Peekay she learns to be a friend and a girlfriend, to be normal…almost.
The Female of the Species is in no small part, a message about the danger women know is out there every day of their lives, how they cope, how they support and undercut each other. It has elements are resemble a public service announcement, though deftly packaged as a high school assembly on sexual assault. After all, if you want to do a public service announcement, could there be a better way than having your characters attend the high school version? Reading it while our country is dealing with a presidential candidate who brags of committing sexual battery with impunity, it seemed a bit overwhelming.
After the Access Hollywood recording was revealed, a woman named Kelly Oxford tweeted asking women to share their first experience of sexual assault. The response was overwhelming and many women who never spoke of it before shared their experiences on twitter, but also with friends, family and their partners. The sheer numbers shocked people across the country. Could this finally be a moment when rape culture is finally understood.
This book has a powerful description of grief, one that will stay with me for a long time. It rings so true. “It’s a different kind of pain than the constant, the weight that hangs from my heart. It swings from twine embedded so deeply that my aorta has grown around it. Blood pulses past rope in the chambers of my heart, dragging away tiny fibers until my whole body is suffused and pain is all I am and ever can be.”
The Female of the Species is an engrossing book, fast-paced and exciting. We care about PeeKay, Alex, and Jack. Their high school experience seems authentic, the right amount of cattiness and bravado, obnoxious but not overweening. There’s a “popular girl” that PeeKay loves to hate, but she is not a caricature. People are asked to look beyond the stereotype and that is a good thing.
This is a Young Adult book; all the main characters are in their senior year. Nonetheless, it deals with its themes with sophistication and honesty. It is suspenseful and the characters get us on their side despite their imperfections.