Review: Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn

July 21, 2015 Reviews 4 ★★★★

Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on June 9, 2015
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 240
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
From the Morris-Award winning author of Charm & Strange, comes a twisted and haunting tale about three teens uncovering dark secrets and even darker truths about themselves.

When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.

Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.

Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.

But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs.

I don’t usually pay much attention to titles, but “Delicate Monsters” intrigued me.  What exactly is a “delicate monster?”  After reading Stephanie Kuehn’s latest novel, I did some Googling and expected to find that the phrase is from a song or a poem or another book, and I wanted to see how it was originally used to get some additional insight into Kuehn’s ideas about her story.  But it looks like it’s an original phrase that she created, so I will try to interpret it myself.  I think the “delicate monsters” in this story are people who have some form of mental illness and who do horrible things.  In hindsight, that seems evident, but the beauty of these “delicate monsters” is that Kuehn writes them in such a way that we are able to feel some varying degrees of sympathy for them.

The first and most clear-cut monster is Sadie Su.  I’ll go ahead and diagnose Sadie as a sociopath.  She’s cruel for no other reason than that she can be, she throws rocks at cars for fun, and she’s just generally scary.  One little scene that highlighted Sadie’s mental illness more clearly than even some of the more outwardly cruel behavior she exhibits is when urinates on herself while walking in her house in her nightgown.  Why?  Because she likes the feel of the warmth on her legs.  This freaked me out for a couple of reasons.  One, because it demonstrates how disconnected she is from “normal” human behavior, and two, because it reminded me of a certain scene from The Exorcist.

Emerson is our next monster.  He’s Sadie’s former childhood friend and current classmate.  Initially, he seems OK.  But then he commits a sick act which would be bad enough on its own, but is made worse because of the way he is unable to understand the wrongness of his actions.  We also learn, through Sadie, about his sadistic acts as a child, and by that point, I began to view Emerson as even scarier than Sadie.

Miles is Emerson’s younger brother.  He might not be a monster, unless you consider his possible ability to predict impending, horrible violence as monstrous.  He’s odd and awkward and, not surprisingly, he’s tormented and bullied at school.  He’s tortured by the visions in his head and unfortunately, his brother is too self-absorbed to care.

Sadie connects with these two brothers in very different ways.  She decides to have her unique brand of “fun” with Emerson, and I can’t say that I minded.  He deserved to be on the receiving end of Sadie’s torturing.  But Miles has a very different effect on Sadie.  Something about his strangeness helped to level off her sociopathic tendencies, if only in her interactions with Miles.

I had certain expectations going into this book, based on Kuehn’s previous two novels, Charm and Strange and Complicit, both of which were very, very good.  They both dealt with mental illness and had unreliable narrators and knock-your-socks-off endings.  Delicate Monsters differs primarily in its lack of an unreliable narrator, and I kept waiting for someone to get exposed.  But I like how Kuehn took a different and unexpected path here.  There IS a shocking ending, and it’s one that at the beginning of the book would have seemed unbelievable, but with Kuehn’s careful development of her characters throughout the story, it works, and it’s very powerful.

One of my favorite things about all of Kuehn’s books is how she is completely unafraid to show the ugliness of her characters.  As a reader, this can be a brutal experience,  but it’s real, and it’s honest, and it’s true to life.

Note: This review is based on an ARC received from the publisher.



4 Responses to “Review: Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn”

  1. Shelley

    Hi Stephanie. Thanks for your review. I just wanted to point out that the phrase “delicate monsters” didn’t originate with Kuehn. It’s from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Kuehn opens the story with a verse from the book. In French the term is “monstre delicat” (missing the accent).

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