The Year of Needy Girls
By Patricia A. Smith
Kaylie Jones Books / Akashic Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I'm usually a big fan of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, and have enjoyed nearly every novel they've sent us over the last half-decade of our relationship with them; and that's what made it a much bigger surprise than normal to read their latest, The Year of Needy Girls by New England author Patricia A. Smith (not to be confused with New England slam poet Patricia Smith), and realize that it's only a mediocre book at best, 300 pages of wasted potential from a premise that really held promise. That premise revolves around a child molestation charge between a high-school teacher and one of her students; but the twist here is that the teacher is a lesbian and the student in question is a teenage girl, which combined with the provocative title could've given us a rich milieu to examine the slippery line between female friendship and female sexuality, especially among impressionable and emotionally charged young women who are in the middle of imperfectly defining that line for themselves.
The problem, though, is that Smith never delivers on this promise, turning in a book that will be disappointing to any fan of quickly-plotted crime thrillers -- the few developments that actually happen in the case are entirely expected and take the entire length of the book to take place, when the typical crime novelist would be through them all by the end of act one -- yet it's unsatisfying as a deep character study as well, the other direction one might go with a story like this, precisely because the characters aren't interesting or complicated enough to hold up an entire full-length novel by themselves; our put-upon hero Deirdre is kind of wishy-washy, displays no dark pockets of her personality, and is monomaniacal about her career (plus, although not technically guilty of the molestation charges brought against her, is definitely guilty of deliberately putting herself in that kind of compromising position in the first place, in the spirit of "teachers who inappropriately get wrapped up in the personal lives of their students too much," making it difficult to root for her when she could've so easily avoided the situation in the first place), while her lesbian partner is so non-defined as a character that the author has to make up a distracting sensationalist B-story just to give her something to do. (To be specific, a child murder that happens an entire year before our story begins, which has nothing to do with the main story and affects it not even in the slightest way, despite it being touted as a major plot development in the book's dust-jacket synopsis.)
Now add the fact that most of the tension in this book cheaply relies on the citizens of this upper-class liberal New England town reacting with the histrionics of a 1950s moral-panic film to the mere idea of a lesbian being a high-school teacher, an idea that Smith maybe could've gotten away with if setting this story in the actual 1950s, but that rings false and hollow here when set in the 2010s, a lazy excuse to add conflict and stakes to a story that hasn't earned it on its own; and you're left with a novel that will be satisfying neither to crime fans nor those looking for a good LGBT story. It's still getting a decent score from me today, because it's at least well-written; but it's not a book I recommend going out of your way to read, which is sadly the first time in my entire history of reviewing Akashic books that I've had to say that.
Out of 10: 7.0