Lucky Girl: Holiday Reading That Isn't Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Holiday romance isn't really my thing. I have nothing against Hallmark movies and books about a big-city girl coming home to her charming rural town and finding the meaning of Christmas in the arms of a local toyseller/baker/dog-walker/miscellaneous-holiday-enthusiast. But while I love a good romance (and live a good romance, let's face it), I'm on a serious horror kick right now. So when I picked up Lucky Girl: How I Became a Horror Writer at my local bookstore and found out it was a Krampus tale, my immediate response was "sign me up!"
Ro is a single girl in her twenties, struggling to get by alone after the tragic death of her family. Until one Christmas Eve, when she spends the holiday with a group of near-strangers that bonded over the closing of a local diner. Just something to do, right? A way not to spend the day alone. But that one day will change her life forever, and by the end, you'll be wondering who isn't a monster lurking in the shadows.
Now, first things first: it's a short novella, clocking in at 103 pages. You can probably bust it out in a few hours, depending on how fast you read. So when I say that I had some minor qualms with it, know that several of them could be solved by making it a longer book. Everything in a novella has to be a good balance of fast-paced and tight, with quick action, and if you try to do too much, it falters. Lucky Girl falls into this trap pretty excessively. It tries to tell multiple stories at once, and there just isn't time to do justice to it all, leaving it a bit flat. It's rushed throughout, and didn't have the opportunity to lean into any one theme. That said, it was a fun read, and a nice way to spend a snowy afternoon.
Ro -- Roanoke -- is the protagonist, and eponymous "Lucky Girl" of the book (though how lucky she really is, I'll leave for the reader to decide.) We come to her having survived the worst day of her life when she was sixteen -- the death of her family in a house fire. Why did she survive? She was out in the park, driven by anonymous notes of a person claiming to want to meet her that day. When she finally got home, after no one had shown... her world had fallen apart. This story takes place a decade later, when she's a struggling horror writer, living on her own in a tiny apartment and just enough belongings to muddle through.
That Christmas Eve, she meets with four other near-strangers at her home. They'd all bonded over the closing of a local diner they'd all frequented, and decided that none of them had anyone else to spend the holiday with. The course of the story takes place over multiple Christmases with this group, as they go through their lives. Grayson, the enigmatic man who comes from money; Adrienne, the self-absorbed pretty girl (with a minor problem with kleptomania); Lena, a cheerful woman who you really shouldn't get attached to, and Keith. Oh Keith.
I will just say that there is not a single male character in this book that has any redeeming value. They're all shit. The book is too short to say too much without getting into massive spoiler territory, but just trust me on this one.
For the most part, Ro is the only character that has any depth to her. There really isn't any time to get to know the other characters, because it's a short novella taking place over several years, and by the time you think you've gotten a character under your belt, it's next year, and the situation is very different. This serves effectively to keep the reader guessing, but it also feels as if there isn't much footing in the first place in terms of who you expect the characters to be, so when the twist inevitably comes, you don't have enough investment into the character to feel the pang of betrayal, or the thrill of having known it all along. I, for one, responded simply with a "well, that happened" as I turned the page to see what fresh hell was arriving.
The plot of Lucky Girl is perhaps where I have the most significant issues. Once again, it really could all be solved just by being a longer book. There are a number of terrific twists, but it's all so rushed that I never get the chance to feel surprised before the next (completely different) blow comes.
There is a Krampus-related element to the story, first introduced as a ghost story Grayson tells at the group's first Christmas together. It was about him, as a boy, finding an old church on his family's property on Christmas Eve, and finding an altar dedicated to Krampus inside and a woman in a cage -- a scene that he fled, and was never able to find again. This comes back to haunt Ro as she spends Christmas a few years later at Grayson's estate -- but there's a whole other subplot going on, and so the scene where we discover the horrors of this Krampus shrine are rushed over in a very matter-of-fact page and a half, at which point it describes the police arriving and then... it's a year later and the event is over. Now we're onto the next scare, which also doesn't receive any real attention.
I felt like I was always being worked up, waiting for that next thrilling moment, but instead I was always greeted with a feeling of someone examining an exhibit at a torture museum, if instead of the exhibit labels talking about Iron Maidens and racks, we had a novel about murder and monsters.
The Writing Style
There were certainly things I enjoyed about Rickert's writing style. I did like the character of Ro, though I felt that she was being pigeonholed by the author into the most naïve perspective concerning the people around her, when she had no reason to reach the conclusions she did. And there wasn't enough time to develop her character. Maybe, with a few more pages, we could have discussed why she felt the way she did toward her compatriots, and why she insisted on suspecting the people that were trying to help her, favoring instead the ones who were, for lack of a better term: dodgy AF. I spent the entire second half of the book thinking she was smarter than the way she was being portrayed.
I felt as if Rickert was pushing herself (or an editor was pushing her, perhaps) to make the story too compact. The climax of the story didn't feel like a climax. It was one twist after another, but each one was resolved with a paragraph about what ended up happening and a jump to another scene, as if she were saying "this is the big climax of the story! But... it's not worth talking about."
I did genuinely love the last paragraph. It's a massive spoiler, so I won't share. But it's the big twist I didn't see coming, and I appreciated the hell out of it. It just felt like the reader had no time to enjoy the cliffhanger. It was literally just a paragraph.
I think what it comes down to is this: Lucky Girl is a novella being told in the manner of a spooky ghost story that people sometimes tell at Christmas. (This is a practice I think more people should re-adopt, to be honest.) I think that storytelling style accounts for a lot of the rushed feeling, but mostly? I liked it, I just wished there were more of it so that the twists and turns, the thrills and the climaxes, all had time to be appreciated. Without fail, almost every single issue I had would be solved if the book were a novel and not a novella. This is admittedly my first foray into M. Rickert's work, and I'd like to try it again. And, if you hate it, never fear. It won't take you long to get through. My advice: if you're into horror, take it for what it is, as a thrilling, brief ride through a twisted tale set during the holidays, and don't expect it to be anything else. Still worth a read, and if you disagree, please let me know (constructively) in the comments!
Much holiday love to those of you who celebrate, whether it be Yule, Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, or whatever brings your heart joy. And if you're waiting for it to be over, I hope you find a measure of peace in the meantime. May your houses be filled with warmth, love, and a few holiday treats. (My cat has already "approved" of my wife's lemon tartlets.)
Be well, and Happy Holidays!
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Thank my wife for this shot. My Christmas tree shifts colors, from red, to white, to gold, and then back again. So not only did she balance this IN the tree (while trying to fend off the calico from climbing in it) but she managed to get the red lights, as requested. Because they're creepier.