Bonfire – Krysten Ritter
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Abby Williams was born and raised in Barrens, Indiana, a rural town with enough mundanity, small-town secrets, and high-school viciousness to make anyone want to flee. After settling down in Chicago as an environmental lawyer, she is dragged back to her hometown to work on a case concerning Optimal, a multimillion dollar corporation suspected of poisoning the local water supply. What Abby uncovers will not only expose all of Optimal’s shady dealings, but reveal a dark plot rooted in the murky memories of Abby’s own past.
I will readily admit that Bonfire surprised the hell out of me. I’ve read more than a few thrillers in the past year, and I’ve learned that I form opinions quickly whenever I spot a stale trope or an outrageous plot twist. I have tons of love for Krysten Ritter; Jane Margolis is one of my favorite TV characters of all time, and I’d cosplay as Jessica Jones in a heartbeat if the situation arose. But I decided to tread lightly when opening her book.
I was so happily surprised with the originality of the plot. Abby is an intelligent main character. Though unreliable, her unreliability is really only based in the time and uncertainty of the situations of her youth. She was an outcast, so when shady things were going down around her in high school, she was simply left out of the loop. It’s a situation I remember very well from my own grade school years: the popular girl keeps you close to feed her own ego, but she’ll dismiss you and let you know you’re unwanted at the drop of a hat. Abby’s memories of Kaycee, the enigmatic school golden girl, follow this line of development, and it makes Abby unreliable in such an interesting and fresh way.
The details of law proceedings, corporate corruption, and environmental abuse were so technical and detailed. The first half of the book was laden with descriptive and specific explanations of Abby’s investigation of Optimal’s violations, and while it was hard to feel emotionally driven by these passages, the research was thorough and impressive.
I’ve seen one reviewer compare Abby’s journey back to a dark past to Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, and I totally see a valid comparison. The neighborhood locals are seedy, sneaky, and difficult to trust, and the protagonist is diving into a pool of murky-water memories. However, as many of my followers will recall, I was pretty staunchly not a fan of Sharp Objects. Where I found Flynn’s characters annoying and unlikable, and the tone a tad too depressing, Ritter’s debut reeled me in with likability. Her cast of characters isn’t particularly abhorrent, but we are just so unsure of whose kindness is forced, whose perspectives are falsified, and whose consciouses are compromised. Moreover, Ritter’s main character is bogged down by her past, but fiercely devoted to finding the truth in it.
Abby is a free spirit, and like most free spirits, this leads to her being a rebellious professional, a rule-breaker, and a sexually liberated woman. Her promiscuity feels a little forced, and thrown in at odd angles. Sex is used as a device to confuse her and complicate who she trusts, but I personally felt like, while her physical relations didn’t detract from the story, they didn’t exactly add much. Also, I don’t like being convinced that a guy who goes by “Condor” is attractive in any way.
I love Ritter’s writing style; the book is very driven by action, but she isn’t afraid to throw in remarks worthy of remembering. She’s thoughtful and intentional enough to craft sentences that we can jot down in our list of favorite quotes and passages. My personal favorite came swiftly at the end: “The past is just a story we tell. And all stories depend on the ending.”
Bonfire is a pleasant surprise with an authentic mystery at its core, and strong characters to unravel the twisty darkness layered throughout the plot. Ritter’s sense of small-town simplicity is as charming as it is realistic; Abby recalls the nostalgia of high-school games and bonfires just as swiftly as she acknowledges the poverty and lack of opportunity that restricts its residents. I surprised myself by genuinely enjoying winding through the truth of the story, and even though the end wasn’t full of crazy surprises and unbelievable reveals, I appreciate that Bonfire doesn’t try too hard. It is honest, it is straightforward, and boy, oh, boy, it’s compelling.