The Comfort of Monsters by Willa C. Richards – a Book Review

I’m so torn on this book that I went to goodreads first to get a gauge of what other readers thought of it before putting my thoughts together. I’ve come to the conclusion that readers either love or hate this book. I find myself in that rare position of being somewhere in between, which is an odd place to be. I’ll do my best to explain that. I feel like I was able to respect the very human story Richards created without actually enjoying the book. I will also include fairly minor spoilers, in which I don’t discuss how the book ends but how I thought the book SHOULD have ended, so if you don’t want to know how it DOESN’T end, stop reading. Weird enough for you and slightly intriguing? Let’s get started.

Synopsis

It was the summer of 1991 in Milwaukee, the summer that Jeffrey Dahmer was discovered as the monster guilty committing of unspeakable horrors against young men, victims the media and law enforcement would later turn on due to their “lifestyle choices.” It was a time of community fear and intense shame for those who should represent every member of society no matter class, color or social status. That same summer, a young woman known as Dee would go missing, her disappearance relatively unnoticed due to the distraction of a more titillating crime spree in their midst. Thirty years later, the young woman’s family still has no answers and they’ve exhausted nearly every dollar they have and every ounce of strength on uncovering the truth. All they’ve been told for thirty years is “No body, no crime.” When they hire a psychic with wide national acclaim, they believe this might be the moment they will uncover the truth of what happened to Dee.

Review

First of all, this book hasn’t exactly been marketed well. It is not, as described, an exciting thriller for fans of Gillian Flynn. Yes, I agree that it mirror’s Flynn in an important respect, as Richards spends a lot of time developing her characters. It’s very much a dark story about inner turmoil. Where it diverges, however, is there really isn’t much mystery. There’s merely frustration, frustration that never really gets abated. There’s no harrowing conclusion. There is a conclusion, but it is far from a satisfactory one. Flynn goes out like a lion. This book whimpers in the corner like a frightened and neglected dog.

I don’t mean for that to sound harsh. My point is this book is purely psychological. It’s about a community and a family that has been irrevocably damaged. It’s about a character who will never be whole. Peg, the surviving sister of Dee and the last person to see her alive, is not an enjoyable protagonist. She’s angry, bitter, and more damaged than you can ever imagine. Even before her sister disappeared, she struggled with her own identity. She had an odd relationship with her sister that seemed too close. She was almost obsessed with her, often really strangely sexualizing her, wanting to touch her, calling her “baby.” The flashback scenes where they were together were extremely uncomfortable. Honestly, I think with all the weirdness surrounding their relationship there was only one way to end this, and it’s not the route the author took. Peg needed to be the killer. Her intense jealousy over not being able to own Dee the way she desired pushed her over the edge. Peg was unhinged. This was a missed opportunity, I believe, especially considering how many clues were included in the narrative to make me think Peg was hiding something. For that to go nowhere was a major letdown, but it didn’t calm my uneasiness about Peg’s character. It just left me feeling confused.

If you think Peg’s relationship with her sister sounds unhealthy, don’t even get me started on her relationships with men. That is an absolute freaking train wreck. I wanted to shake some sense into her. But, honestly, there’s something so desperately authentic about Peg’s story. It’s heartbreaking, but there are so many women caught in the cycle of abuse that Peg experiences. Not just women, but men too. There’s an intense psychological hold some people are able to assert over significant others, and it’s really difficult for those of us on the outside to understand how someone could stay in that situation.

Now, I don’t want to make it seem like I feel completely negative about this book. It’s well written, for sure. While it’s not exactly satisfying, it does make a profound statement about society and its treatment of victims, especially the glorification of perpetrators at the expense of those victims, which merely causes more harm to come to the families left to pick up the pieces.

I liked the incorporation of the Dahmer case, and I understand why she included it. Many people thought it was a useless distraction, but I completely disagree. There was a definite relationship, and it played a part in the main story. I was 7 years old in the summer of 1991. I distinctly remember this case and how shocking it was. I will say, however, that I didn’t understand or pick up on the details or the context of the effect it had on the gay community. I definitely appreciated that part of this book. Richards made me look at this case in a completely different light, and it wasn’t a good light. It was a representative of a deep social sickness that permeates our society even today. I thought the psychic was the completely useless distraction. Honestly, I don’t really see what the point of his presence was besides maybe further commentary on the types of capitalization that come from crimes that shock the nation. Just one more person preying on the desperation of sad people with nothing to lose.

Really, this book is bleak. It’s not an easy read because it’s just depressing and uncomfortable. Trigger warnings out the wazoo for abuse, rape, and… geez, just everything I guess. You have been warned. This book is very sexually graphic but not in a titillating way. Sex in this world is grotesque. It’s more likely to make you cringe and give you deep anxiety. Honestly, there wasn’t a heterosexual man in this book who wasn’t either guilty of or capable of some kind of atrocity. They were scum, plain and simple. I certainly hope there’s not a community out there in which that’s an accurate representation. Yikes.

Overall, this book just left me feeling despondent and unsatisfied. The writing is great. The character development is good but extremely odd. It was an effective character study for a deeply damaged individual, but I don’t think I’ll find myself recommending it to anyone, and I certainly won’t reread it. Once was plenty. Two stars.

As an aside, I want to commend Richards on the title which is incredibly apt for this book. On the one hand, the comfort of monsters could allude to the comfort experienced by the monsters themselves. Dahmer and others receive glory and attention. As white men, they are often afforded privileges others aren’t allowed. Their victims are either forgotten or dissected by the media while they receive what is akin to adoration. They become mythic and legendary. It can also allude to the false comfort a woman like Peg finds with an abusive monster of a man, a slow relinquishment of power on the part of a woman to the whims of a cruel man. It’s a multi-purpose title and I really like it.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

About Amy @ A Librarian and Her Books

I'm a law librarian from the state of Missouri and a graduate of Missouri State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia. My real passion is in fiction, which is why I started my blog to share my thoughts with other bibliophiles. I live with my husband and two wonderful children and a collection of furry feline companions.
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