I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I so wanted to love this one.
After all, with a premise like this, who wouldn't? Scarlet is living her life, hanging out with friends, drooling over her crush, being a teenager. Sure, her mom is a bit more overprotective than most, but Scarlet has lived that way her whole life. Just as she has lived without knowing her father, who left when she was a baby.
Except, he didn't really 'leave; the way she thinks he did. It turns out, her father is notorious serial killer who is serving life in prison for his horrific acts of violence, murdering young women, burying them at the family's cabin, then returning to their corpses until they were too putrefied for even him to stand any more. Ew.
So Scarlet's going about her life until the FBI show up and everything she thought she knew is completely upended. Turns out her dad is Jeffrey Robert Lake. He's dying of cancer in prison and will only give up the names of his remaining victims, those not buried at the cabin. The FBI believe he has killed dozens more than they know about, and they are asking Scarlet to do this, to meet with her father so that these families can finally know what happened to their loved ones. That is why they opted for life in prison and not the death penalty when he was being sentences. He always hinted at more victims, and now Lake is getting more time in the spotlight once again.
Scarlet finds out her real name is Britney, named after her father's first victim. She and her mother have been living under fake identities and with these revelations there comes family that Scarlet never knew she had. She and her mother disappeared during the trial, when her mother finally came to terms with the truth, realizing she had married a monster. The media and the public had certainly not made her life easy, claiming she must have helped her husband and there's no way she didn't know what he was doing.
Scarlet agrees to see her father and it goes exactly as well as you'd expect. He's a grade-A creep and douchebag and gross. Scarlet doesn't back down though, and manages to get names and locations on a few of the visits. She also decides to embark on a project to bring the victims to the forefront, to give them voices long after her father took their lives.
It took me a while to settle on three stars. I loved the premise and for the most part the execution of the narrative is fine. It is a YA novel that reads as such with the words and thoughts of the main characters, teenagers. The parts that I struggled with though, came in the form of the artifacts, such as the "newspaper clippings" and "magazine articles". While the dialogue and actions are expected to be on the juvenile side, I did not expect the same from those items imbedded throughout the story. They are important because they give further insight to the crimes, but they were not all written in a tone that one would expect. The YA-ness seeped into them as well, which makes no sense. Additionally, I wanted more interactions between Scarlet and her father. I did not expect him to give up the locations of all of his victims, but I was really keen on how they reacted to one another.
It's obvious that the reason her father has asked to see her is not to build any kind of relationship before he dies. It is for him to relieve the crimes once again, to revel in the horror he created, and to inflict as much emotional trauma on her and her mother as he can. That psychological piece was a trip, and I think very well done.
Scarlet has to deal with a lot now that her identity and I think that is also handled well. She is thrust into this new environment, meeting her grandparents, cousin and aunt (her father's sister, even) and trying to come to terms with what this all means, that she is not who she thought she was. Scarlet grapples with that, if whatever made her father into the monster he was, is it in her too? But the book is still YA and doesn't dwell solely on that. We see Scarlet stumbling through her new life as best she can, and she does remarkably well. It certainly doesn't help that the press won't leave her alone, and she has some close encounters with less than savory characters trying to talk to her about all of it.
The story moves pretty quickly once Scarlet discovers the big family secret and I read it in a fairly short amount of time. The beginning is slow, but I think that was intentional - we get these shots of Scarlet's life before it is completely turned upside down. I think that is important to show the contrast to everything that will come after she answers the door and finds the FBI have come calling.
I also appreciate how the focus was not necessarily Scarlet and her father. I did not feel much a connection to Scarlet throughout the book, and I don't know if the author intended this or not, but I think that's a good thing. The victims and their families deserve center stage, not the man who ruined all of their lives. Too often this happens in real life; everyone knows who Jeffrey Dahmer was, can you name any of his victims? Bundy's? Zodiac's? Probably not.
Yet, Scarlet and her mom are victims too. Her mom had no idea, refused to accept it until face to face with indisputable evidence - her husband gave her gifts that belonged to his victims. That was the point when she realized it was all true, and this would be something her daughter would have to live with. But even then, Scarlet's focus is on the families and she agrees to keep seeing Lake, no matter how deeply disturbing his confessions to her are, because even one more name and location is worth it - that's one more family who can bring their baby home.
In the end, it's a decent read about how we respond to things others have done that we have no control over. That's really the only control we have.