Krysten Ritter’s debut novel “Bonfire” paints a spectacular picture of rural North Central America and artfully interlaces a plethora of dire topics. That being said, the protagonist, Abby’s quick wit and snarky determination are an incredible vessel with which to marry both the legal and nostalgic worlds that drive the plot ever forward.
Abby is an environmental lawyer originally from the small town of Barrens, Indiana, though she prefers to tell people she’s from Chicago. A major corporation called Optimal moves into Barrens when Abby is young, and by the time she’s left and gotten her degree, the company has more than doubled the town in size and allegedly poisoned water supplies in Barrens. This brings Abby back into town; her firm takes on the Optimal case and she agrees to work it mainly for personal reasons. We quickly learn through flashbacks that Abby’s childhood best friend Kaycee, who would later become her bully, became deathly ill, allegedly due to the contaminated water from Optimal’s plant, and soon after, it’s rumored that she skipped town, leaving no trace. Abby returns to Barrens, determined to solve the Optimal case, but also in hopes of figuring out what happened to Kaycee.
I enjoyed “Bonfire” from beginning to end. Abby is so incredibly human, and Ritter does a great job of making her equal parts badass and vulnerable. I admittedly picked up this book because I love Ritter’s Netflix Original Series “Jessica Jones,” in which she is the title character. Ritter plays Jessica, a badass PI whose primary foil is Kilgrave, a man almost untouchable due to his superhuman ability to make people do as he tells them. The strong feminism in “Jessica Jones” led me to assume that “Bonfire” might provide a lot of the same agency for its leading lady, and Ritter definitely delivered.
One of the reasons I especially loved this story and Abby as a protagonist is because Ritter isn’t afraid to shy away from sexuality, in any sense of the word. First of all, another of the main characters, Joe, is almost immediately announced to be gay, and it’s never mentioned again as a means of his characterization; only just to suggest that something not so professional might be going on between Joe and another colleague. In addition, female sexuality is mentioned casually. Abby frequently lusts after men from her past, sometimes shamefully, but she almost always exhibits self control. She admits attraction but doesn’t let it make her weak, but rather stronger, so that she will only act on these feelings if she is sure that she will have control of the situation.
Another element to this story that I found to be intriguing was the nostalgia written into the story. Ritter gives us a series of flashbacks in random order as the plot moves along, and we slowly piece together the reasons Abby decided to take on the case. Her storied past with her childhood best friend Kaycee is shown to the audience out of order so that we might see it from a similar perspective to Abby in the current day storyline. The mystery of what happened to Kaycee Mitchell plagues the entire town, but Abby is the only person still stuck in the past. Abby faces many of her childhood friends and foes, along with her father, who has become weak due to illness. Many of her past authority figures, in fact, friend’s parents, the police chief, don’t seem all that daunting to Abby anymore. More than that, Abby’s embarrassment at having her colleagues witnessing where she found her feet keeps Kayce holding this undeniable connection to her surroundings and past life almost like a secret, to the point where it almost kills her by the end of the story.
I do wish Ritter had gone to greater lengths to explain how the Big Business aspect of this story came into play with the rest of the mystery. We do learn what has been happening in Barrens, what happened to Kaycee, and how it is all connected to Optimal, however, we don’t get to know how exactly Optimal has weeded its way into the mix, or how they get themselves out of it. If Ritter had included just 10-20 more pages of explanation, the novel would have been perfect.
In addition, the one plot hole I can’t seem to get around lies within Kaycee Mitchell. Right when Abby has all but figured out the mystery, her partner Joe undercuts her, telling her that Kaycee called asking for her out of the blue. This plot point functions mainly to cut Abby off from Joe and the rest of the lawyer gang, however, it didn’t make much sense to me that Joe would abandon her, rather than make sure she is okay. In addition, the call from the fake Kaycee was clearly meant to ensure our protagonist that she is on the right track, but it’s never explained who had called pretending to be Kaycee. Ritter mentions that the police chief had a connection to the area code of the fake phone call, but she never explores it further, and the audience just has to drop that thread and hope it crops up again by the end of the story. Regardless, all of the intention was there, I just think that Ritter perhaps didn’t get a chance to thread it all together properly. Like I said, a few more pages might have sufficed. Perhaps I need to give it another read to fully understand that moment in the novel.
In any case, “Bonfire” was a stunning debut and I look forward to reading all Ritter has to give the literary world in the future. The mystery was truly riveting, keeping me on the edge of my seat the entire time, making for a truly addictive read. I am not normally one for thrillers, or mysteries, truthfully, but Ritter made me want to delve into the genre more. “Bonfire” accomplishes all it set out to do, and I will definitely be giving it a second read some time in the near future.