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The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Where to begin with this book review? For starters, the book title caught my interest because I had watched American Horror Story: Roanoke some time ago and so seeing the word “Roanoke” immediately gave me a spooky feel. I knew then I had to pick up The Roanoke Girls.

Reader discretion is advised. This review will contain spoilers for the book plot as well as events in the story and its ending. I would recommend only reading this review if you’ve read the book as I talk about certain aspects of the story that might be confusing for those who have not finished the whole book.

The basis of the novel opens with Lane Roanoke, who was orphaned at fifteen after her mother’s suicide and goes from living in a shoddy New York apartment to a large estate called Roanoke in rural Kansas, where she is taken in by her maternal grandparents and befriends her cousin Allegra. The chapters jump between “Then” to revisit Lane’s recollection of past events and what led up to her fleeing from Roanoke and “Now” to Lane’s decision to return to the estate ten years later when her grandfather, Yates, informs her that Allegra has gone missing.

I did not have to wonder for long about what terrible secret fifteen-year-old Lane discovered at Roanoke that caused her to leave. Very early in the book (page 32 on the large print hardcover edition), Lane casually questions Yates about whether he was still screwing Allegra. Wow. My brain kind of exploded from that one line. Even more chilling is the calm and joking manner Yates responds to her as if that kind of “love” is not wrong.

Besides Yates‘ apparent “love” for Allegra, small hints are dropped throughout the book that she was not the first in the family to fall for his charms. The Roanoke family tree goes back three generations. Yates, who had two sisters, Jane and Sophia. Jane had a daughter, Penelope, out of wedlock, and apparently ran away shortly after giving birth at Roanoke, never again returning. Sophia drowned to death in a river. Penelope died after falling down the stairs and breaking her neck. Yates and his wife, Lillian, had three girls: Eleanor, Camille, and Emmeline. Eleanor, who was Allegra‘s mother, left Roanoke two weeks after giving birth. Camille had Lane and left as well, except she kept her daughter and raised her, but become more and more emotionally unstable and was quite neglectful and abusive towards Lane. Lastly, Emmeline died at six months old. Pretty grim family, eh? Allegra and Jane are the last of their line.

So what’s the bombshell here? Well, the awful truth that is revealed in the course of the whole novel is Yates has had sexual inclinations towards all of them and it was consensual, apparently. Some chapters contain brief povs from past Roanoke girls and the one that really turned my stomach was reading fourteen-year-old Penelope recount having her first kiss with Yates. In an earlier chapter with Jane’s pov, it is noted that Penelope was fathered by Yates, meaning Yates has kissed both his own sister and also his daughter/niece. WTF.

Even more fucked up is Lillian knew what was going on but she stayed in the marriage because she loved her husband that much and because she had nowhere to go as her family essentially disowned her for marrying someone of a lower class than her. Oh, and Lillian reveals to Lane towards the end that she killed Allegra, whom she believed was pregnant with Yates‘ child but actually she was pregnant by Tommy, a married man who has been in love with Allegra since the both of them were teenagers. In Lillian‘s pov, she implicates herself in Penelope’s death and admits she killed Emmeline to keep her own daughter from growing up and becoming Yates‘ lover. I am at least relieved that Lane got away from Roanoke before Yates could manipulate her, although he does kiss her at one point. Allegra mentions that, at fourteen, Yates gave her the choice for their relationship to become sexual and she accepted.

The whole incest thing was an ick factor. By the end, I was left dumbfounded by Yates‘ motivations for why he did what he did. My immediate reaction was that it was sick and twisted. And it was. Each Roanoke girl seemed to be so starved for love and attention that Yates was all too willing to scoop in and provide them with. The most insane part of all this is Yates seems to be earnest in his love. It wasn’t until Jane’s chapter that I got a glimpse of how it all started. Yates and his sister Jane‘s soulmate-like magnetic bond with each other reminded me greatly of Game of Thrones‘ Jaime and Cersei Lannister‘s twincest relationship, except Yates and Jane were not twins and Jane eventually chose freedom beyond Roanoke over Yates, who loved the estate too much to ever leave it behind.

I do not know if I should think Yates has been trying to recreate the love he and Jane had by ensnaring the other Roanoke girls. I suspect there is some narcissism in Yates. In Lillian‘s words when she described Yates falling in love with Jane’s daughter Penelope, she said that for him it was like “screwing a version of himself.” Yates knows the effect he has on women, too, which is how he got Lillian, who had never felt passion and fire for any man until him.

One subplot I enjoyed was Lane rekindling a romance with Cooper, the town mechanic. Their relationship was not perfect and kind of a mess when they were younger, but I liked the dynamic and understanding that was born from them as adults. I felt sad for Lane as she believed her grandpa Yates was the only one who has ever loved her and the disturbing part is I know if Lane had never left Roanoke and/or chosen to stay there permanently as an adult, she might have given into Yates thinking no one could ever want her or cherish her like he does. I found myself thinking, Is this how Yates convinced the other girls too? By showering them with devotion and love that they would otherwise not get anywhere else in their small rural town?

There is some satisfaction in the ending. Lillian attempts to kill Lane for learning about the true nature of Allegra‘s death but Yates stops her and Lillian is eventually arrested for murdering Allegra. Lane finds love and a fresh start with Cooper by leaving with him. Some ends stay dangling though. Tommy is never publicly identified as the father of Allegra‘s deceased unborn child as it is assumed, with the truth about Yates coming to light, that he fathered the child. Yates is left alone in the Roanoke house and it is unclear if he ends up being charged with anything.

While the AHS season was about fake, made-for-tv supernatural ghost hauntings that turned out to be real, The Roanoke Girls has ghosts of a different nature; from the echo of the scrawled messages that Allegra left behind for Lane, to the eerie and invisible hold dear ol‘ Grandpa Yates has over his past and present Roanoke girls, and even the cold, hard truths Lane has to face as she relives the memories she has of those who are long dead.

If you read The Roanoke Girls, tell me what you thought of it by leaving a comment below. 🙂 What themes in the book stood out to you most? Which character were you most interested/invested in and what drew you to this character? Was there a particular scene or line that resonated with you and if so, why? What do you think the overall message of the book is?

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