“A stunning debut.” —Washington Post
“Haunting [and] powerful.” —The New York Times
“A modern-day classic.” —Jeffery Deaver, New York Times bestselling author of The Bone Collector
“Fantastic, I loved it.” —Paula Hawkins, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl on the Train
She thought she had escaped her past. But there are some things you can’t outrun.
Lex Gracie doesn't want to think about her family. She doesn't want to think about growing up in her parents' House of Horrors. And she doesn't want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped, the eldest sister who freed her older brother and four younger siblings. It's been easy enough to avoid her parents--her father never made it out of the House of Horrors he created, and her mother spent the rest of her life behind bars. But when her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can't run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the home into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her siblings--and with the childhood they shared.
What begins as a propulsive tale of escape and survival becomes a gripping psychological family story about the shifting alliances and betrayals of sibling relationships--about the secrets our siblings keep, from themselves and each other. Who have each of these siblings become? How do their memories defy or galvanize Lex's own? As Lex pins each sibling down to agree to her family's final act, she discovers how potent the spell of their shared family mythology is, and who among them remains in its thrall and who has truly broken free.
For readers of Room and Sharp Objects, an absorbing and psychologically immersive novel about a young girl who escapes captivity–but not the secrets that shadow the rest of her life.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
You don't know me, but you'll have seen my face. In the earlier pictures, they bludgeoned our features with pixels, right down to our waists; even our hair was too distinctive to disclose. But the story and its protectors grew weary, and in the danker corners of the Internet we became easy to find. The favored photograph was taken in front of the house on Moor Woods Road, early on a September evening. We had filed out and lined up, six of us in height order and Noah in Ethan's arms, while Father arranged the composition. Little white wraiths squirming in the sunshine. Behind us, the house rested in the last of the day's light, shadows spreading from the windows and the door. We were still and looking at the camera. It should have been perfect. But just before Father pressed the button, Evie squeezed my hand and turned up her face toward me; in the photograph, she is just about to speak, and my smile is starting to curl. I don't remember what she said, but I'm quite sure that we paid for it, later.
I arrived at the prison in the midafternoon. On the drive I had been listening to an old playlist made by JP, Have a Great Day, and without the music and the engine, the car was abruptly quiet. I opened the door. Traffic was building on the motorway, the noise of it like the ocean.
The prison had released a short statement confirming Mother's death. I read the articles online the evening before, which were perfunctory, and which all concluded with a variation of the same happy ending: the Gracie children, some of whom have waived their anonymity, are believed to be well. I sat in a towel on the hotel bed with room service on my lap, laughing. At breakfast, there was a stack of local newspapers next to the coffee; Mother was on the front page, underneath an article about a stabbing at Wimpy Burger. A quiet day.
My room included a hot buffet, and I kept eating right up until the end, when the waitress told me that the kitchen had to begin preparing for lunch.
"People stop for lunch?" I asked.
"You'd be surprised," she said. She looked apologetic. "Lunch isn't included with the room, though."
"That's okay," I said. "Thanks. That was really good."
When I started my job, my mentor, Julia Devlin, told me that the time would come when I would tire of free food and free alcohol; when my fascination with platters of immaculate canapŽs would wane; when I would no longer set my alarm to get to a hotel breakfast. Devlin was right about a lot of things, but not about that.
I had never been to the prison before, but it wasn't so different from what I had imagined. Beyond the car park were white walls, crowned with barbed wire, like a challenge from a fairy tale. Behind that, four towers presided over a concrete moat, with a gray fort at its center. Mother's little life. I had parked too far away and had to walk across a sea of empty spaces, following the thick white lines where I could. There was only one other car in the lot, and inside it there was an old woman, clutching the wheel. When she saw me, she raised her hand, as if we might know each other, and I waved back.
Underfoot, the tarmac was starting to stick. By the time I reached the entrance, I could feel sweat in my bra and in the hair at the back of my neck. My summer clothes were in a wardrobe in New York. I had remembered English summers as timid, and every time I stepped outside, I was surprised by bold blue sky. I had spent some time that morning thinking about what to wear, stuck, half-dressed, in the wardrobe mirror; there really wasn't an outfit for every occasion, after all. I had settled on a white shirt, loose jeans, shop-clean trainers, obnoxious sunglasses. Is it too jovial? I asked Olivia, texting her a picture, but she was in Italy, at a wedding on the walls of Volterra, and she didn't reply.
There was a receptionist, just like in any other office. "Do you have an appointment?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "With the warden."
"With the director?"
"Sure. With the director."
"Are you Alexandra?"
The warden had agreed to meet me in the entrance hall. "There's a reduced staff on Saturday afternoons," she had said. "And no visitors after three p.m. It should be quiet for you."
"I'd like that," I said. "Thanks."
"I shouldn't say this," she said, "but it would be the time for the great escape."
Now she came down the corridor, filling it. I had read about her online. She was the country's first female warden of a high-security facility, and she had given a few interviews after her appointment. She had wanted to be a police officer at a time when height restrictions were still in force, and she was two inches under. She had discovered that she was still tall enough to be a prison officer, which was illogical, but okay with her. She wore an electric blue suit-I recognized it from the pictures accompanying the interviews-and strange, dainty shoes, as if somebody had told her they might soften her impression. She believed-absolutely-in the power of rehabilitation. She looked more tired than in her photographs.
"Alexandra," she said, and shook my hand. "I'm so sorry for your loss."
"I'm not," I said. "So don't worry about it."
She gestured back from where she had come. "I'm just by the visitors' center," she said. "Please."
The corridor was a tepid yellow, scuffed at the baseboards and decorated with shriveled posters about pregnancy and meditation. At the end there was a scanner, as well as a conveyor belt for your belongings. Steel lockers to the ceiling. "Formalities," she said. "At least it's not busy."
"Like an airport," I said. I thought of the service in New York, two days before: my laptop and phones in a gray tray and the neat, transparent bag of makeup that I set beside them. There were special lanes for frequent flyers, and I never had to queue.
"Just like that," she said. "Yes."
She unloaded her pockets onto the conveyor belt and passed through the scanner. She carried a security pass, a pink fan, and a children's sunscreen. "A whole family of redheads," she said. "We're not built for days like this." In her pass photograph she looked like a teenager, eager to begin her first day of work. My pockets were empty. I followed her straight through.
Inside, too, there was no one around. We walked through the visitors' center, where the plastic tables and secured chairs awaited the next session. At the end of the room was a metal door, without windows; somewhere behind that, I assumed, was Mother and the confines of each of her small days. I touched a chair as we passed and thought of my siblings, waiting in the stale room for Mother to be presented to them. Delilah would have reclined here, on many occasions, and Ethan had visited once, although only for the nobility of it. He had written a piece for The Sunday Times afterward, titled "The Problems with Forgiveness," which were many and predictable.
The warden's office was through a different door. She touched her pass to the wall and patted herself down for a final key. It was in the pocket above her heart, attached to a plastic frame that held a photo full of redheaded children. "Well," she said. "Here we are."
It was a simple office, with pockmarked walls and a view to the motorway. She seemed to have recognized this and decided that it wouldn't do; she had brought in a stern wooden desk and an office chair, and she had found a budget for two leather sofas, which she would need for delicate conversations. On the walls were her certificates and a map of the United Kingdom.
"I know that we haven't met before," the warden said, "but there's something I want to say to you before the lawyer joins us."
She gestured to the sofas. I despised formal meetings on comfortable furniture; it was impossible to know how to sit. On the table in front of us was a cardboard box and a slim brown envelope bearing Mother's name.
"I hope that you don't think that this is unprofessional," the warden said, "but I remember you and your family on the news at the time. My children were just babies then. I've thought about those headlines a lot since, even before this job came up. You see a great many things in this line of work. Both the things that make the papers and the things that don't. And after all this time, some of those things-a very small number-surprise me. People say: How can you still be surprised, even now? Well, I refuse not to be surprised."
She took her fan from the pocket of her suit. Closer, it looked like something handmade by a child, or possibly by a prisoner. "Your parents surprised me," she said.
I looked past her. The sun teetered at the edge of the window, about to fall into the room.
"It was a terrible thing that happened to you," she said. "From all of us here-we hope that you might find some peace."
"Should we talk," I said, "about why you called me?"
The solicitor was poised outside the office, like an actor waiting for his cue. He was dressed in a gray suit and a cheerful tie, and sweating. The leather squeaked when he sat down. "Bill," he said, and stood again to shake my hand. The top of his collar had started to stain, and now that was gray, too. "I understand," he said, right away, "that you're also a lawyer." He was younger than I had expected, maybe younger than me; we could have studied at the same time.
"Just company stuff," I said, and to make him feel better: "I don't know the first thing about wills."
"That," Bill said, "is what I'm here for."
I smiled, encouragingly.
"Okay!" Bill said, and rapped the cardboard box. "These are the personal possessions," he said. "And this is the document."
He slid the envelope across the table, and I tore it open. The will read, in Mother's trembling hand, that Deborah Gracie appointed her daughter Alexandra Gracie as executor of this will; that Deborah Gracie's remaining possessions consisted of, first, those possessions held at HM Prison Northwood; second, approximately twenty thousand pounds inherited from her husband, Charles Gracie, upon his death; and third, the property found at 11 Moor Woods Road, in Hollowfield. Those possessions were to be divided equally among Deborah Gracie's surviving children.
"Executor," I said.
"She seemed quite sure that you were the person for the job," Bill said.
See Mother in her cell, playing with her long, long blond hair, right down to her knees; so long that she could sit on it, as a party trick. She considers her will, presided over by Bill, who feels sorry for her, who is happy to help out, and who is sweating then, too. There is so much that he wants to ask. Mother holds the pen in her hand and trembles in studied desolation. Executor, Bill explains. It's something of an honor. But it's also an administrative burden, and there will need to be communications with the various beneficiaries. Mother, with the cancer bubbling in her stomach and only a few months left to fuck us over, knows exactly whom to appoint.
"There is no obligation for you to take this up," Bill said. "If you don't want to."
"I'm aware of that," I said, and Bill's shoulders shifted.
"I can guide you through the basics," he said. "It's a very small portfolio of assets. It shouldn't take up too much of your time. The key thing-the thing that I'd bear in mind-is to get the beneficiaries' agreement. However you decide to handle those assets, you get your siblings' go-ahead first."
I was booked on a flight back to New York the next afternoon. I thought of the cold air on the plane and the neat menus that were handed out just after takeoff. I could see myself settling into the journey, the prior three days deadened by the drinks in the lounge, and waking up to the warm evening and a black car waiting to take me home.
"I need to consider it," I said. "It's not a convenient time."
Bill handed me a slip of paper, his name and number handwritten on pale gray lines. Business cards were not in the prison's budget. "I'll wait to hear from you," he said. "If it's not you, then it would be helpful to have suggestions. One of the other beneficiaries, perhaps."
I thought of making this proposal to Ethan, or Gabriel, or Delilah. "Perhaps," I said.
"For a start," Bill said, holding the box in his palm, "these are all her possessions at Northwood. I can release them to you today."
The box was light.
"They're of negligible value, I'm afraid," he said. "She had a number of goodwill credits-for exemplary behavior, things like that-but they don't have much value outside."
"That's a shame," I said.
"The only other thing," the warden said, "is the body."
She walked to her desk and pulled out a ring-bound file of plastic wallets, each of them containing a flyer or a catalog. Like a waiter with a menu, she opened it before me, and I glimpsed somber fonts and a few apologetic faces.
"Options," she said, and turned the page. "If you'd like them. Funeral homes. Some of these are a bit more detailed: services, caskets, things like that. And they're all local-all within a fifty-mile radius."
"I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding," I said.
The warden shut the file, on a leaflet featuring a leopard-print hearse.
"We won't be claiming the body," I said.
"Oh," Bill said.
If the warden was perturbed, she hid it well. "In that case," she said, "we would bury your mother in an unmarked grave, according to default prison policy. Do you have any objections to that?"
"No," I said. "I don't have any objections."
My other meeting was with the chaplain, who had requested to see me. She had asked me to come to the visitors chapel, which was in the car park. One of the warden's assistants accompanied me to a squat outbuilding. Somebody had erected a wooden cross above the door and hung colored tissue paper across the windows. A childÕs stained glass. Six rows of benches faced a makeshift stage, with a fan and a lectern and a model of Jesus, mid-crucifixion.
Reading Group Guide
1. There are seven siblings in the novel, but the author, Abigail Dean, chose to narrate from Lex’s point of view, “Girl A.” Do you find Lex to be a sympathetic or trustworthy narrator? How does her point of view shape the way the story, and the suspense, unfold? How might the story have differed if told from multiple perspectives?
2. How do you feel about the way Lex handled her mother’s death? Did your feelings change toward her mother throughout the course of the narrative?
3. Lex’s sexual encounter in the first chapter is perhaps an example of the way she has learned to deal with her pain and trauma. What are the ways the other siblings in the novel seem to deal with the trauma? How have they “moved on”? How has trauma bound them to one another? Are there ways their shared trauma have kept them from truly connecting with one another?
4. In her conversations with JP, Lex insists that her sexual preferences and childhood are not connected. Do you believe her?
5. The psychological condition of their father and therefore the rest of the Gracie family are directly affected by religion and poverty. Discuss.
6. Delilah and Lex have a complicated relationship, laden with tension and suspicion. Near the end of the novel, Delilah says, “But you never liked me very much, Lex. You don’t need to start now.” Do you think that’s true? Are sibling rivalries inevitable? Do you have siblings?
7. Jolly is first described as being fervently charismatic, as many cult leaders are. Why do you think some people fall under this spell?
8. Lex’s sense of humor functions in many ways throughout Girl A. Her humor is a way she reveals her intelligence, protects her privacy, and takes control of certain situations, just to name a few. How does her humor affect how we receive her story? Does humor heal or obfuscate healing here?
9. How do themes of power and control manifest themselves throughout the novel?
10. For those of us who came of age during the ’80s and ’90s, news stories about abductions, child abuse, and family secrets were both a shadow hanging over us and so provocative we often couldn’t look away. How has the way our media has changed over the last twenty-five years shaped the way such news stories are told? How has that exposure helped or hurt the real people involved? How does working through such a complex set of circumstances in fiction help us understand the role we, as the viewer, the consumer, can have when it comes to how our news is reported?
11. The book ends with Ethan and Ana’s wedding. In a sense, weddings represent beginnings and are often used in books, movies, and television as the finale of a given story or plot line. What’s the role of the wedding here? Who or what is beginning? How does what we now know about Evie change the way we or Lex feels about the wedding?