The Roanoke Girls: A Novel - Amy Engel

If I’d written a review immediately after finishing this book, it would have been very different. This is a story that puts you through an emotional wringer, making you feel everything from revulsion to hope. So I took a few days to let it all percolate & see what remained.


The story follows 2 threads with chapters that alternate between then & now. They unfold simultaneously & the past has increasing significance as the book progresses. The MC is Lane Roanoke & we first meet her as a 15 year old living in New York with her mother Camilla. They have a cold, distant relationship & Lane knows nothing about her mother’s past or family.


After Camilla kills herself, Lane winds up living in rural Kansas with Yates & Lillian Roanoke, her maternal grandparents. She also meets Allegra. She’s the same age as Lane & has lived on the farm since her mother abandoned her as a baby. For the first time Lane is part of a family & although Allegra is thrilled to have a partner in crime, not everyone is happy she’s come home. It’s the beginning of a long hot summer that will change Lane’s life. Allegra is a mercurial girl who gradually fills Lane in on the history & fate of all the Roanoke girls that came before. They’ve had their share of tragedy which Allegra sums up by saying “Roanoke girls don’t last long around here. In the end we either run or die”.


In the present, Lane is 25 & living a quiet life in LA. We know she fled Kansas at the end of that summer but we don’t know why. Any sense of peace she’s found is shattered when Yates calls to tell her Allegra has disappeared. Lane still feels guilty about the way she left & agrees to come back to help in the search.


Interspersed throughout the book are single chapters narrated by each of the Roanoke women from the preceding 2 generations. The author provides a family tree to help trace their lineage & as they tell their chilling stories, it becomes clear that Allegra was right.


What follows is an unsettling story that encompasses secrets, betrayals, abuse, coming of age & death. There’s a definite gothic undertone to the narrative that is enhanced by an atmospheric setting. Long hot summer days on a bucolic family farm topped off by small town Saturday nights…..sounds idyllic, right?


As usual it comes down to personal preference & like most books, it won’t be for everyone. Some readers have found the story line too disturbing & the MC unlikeable. The best I can offer is If you’re easily offended or prefer fairy tales, walk away. And I found Lane’s character more complex than that but then my pet peeves include distressed damsels in need of a spine donor so I doubt I could have finished it if she’d been a one dimensional doormat.


In fact, she’s one of the reasons I stayed glued to the pages. She’s 15 when we first meet but seems older as she describes her life in a voice that is flat & unaffected. Life with her distant mother has left her with few expectations. It’s only after she moves in with her grandparents that we catch a glimpse of all the insecurities that plague your typical teen. Her relationship with Allegra forces her to deal with emotions she’s never acknowledged & reveals her inner mean girl. But even at her bitchiest (and trust me, she gifted), you recognize her words & behaviour for what they are….a suit of armour protecting a fragile girl with no clue how to give or receive love.


There’s a bittersweet irony that Lane only really gets to know & understand her mother in the present, long after Camilla’s death. She’s old enough now to accept her own mistakes & realizes that escaping her childhood has been difficult partly because she was raised by a parent who never escaped theirs.


So yes, it’s an unsettling & disturbing read. But the fact it invokes such a range of emotions is a testament to this author’s ability to get under your skin. And as a reward for surviving the journey, there’s a tiny ray of light near the end. Don’t get too excited, it’s not like it suddenly veers down a path lined with puppies singing show tunes. There’s just the very real possibility that some of these characters may have finally earned a second shot at something better. I wish them all the best.