Cults, religious trauma, home invasion, emotional and physical abuse against a child, narcissistic parents, animal sacrifice, sexual harassment, disordered eating.
I’m generally a fan of Rachel Harrison’s horror novels. They tend to offer up commentary on things like toxic friendships, trauma, and complicated family dynamics in this darkly comedic, hyperbolic package. When I heard this blended the prodigal daughter of a cult with the catharsis of rebuilding after escaping a narcissistic mother, it jumped to the top of my TBR pile. Unfortunately, it loses some momentum at the halfway point. While I could have used more oomph overall, the delivery is full of enough sardonic quips and macabre comedy that I had to keep reading.
Vesper left home roughly six years ago, just shy of her eighteenth birthday. She picks up waitressing gigs to make ends meet and currently works as a chain restaurant called Shorty’s. In the six years since leaving her family’s compound, she’s never been able to find a community or make lasting friendships. Her coworkers find her snobby and pretentious, and her time at Shorty’s comes to an abrupt end when boiling hot nacho cheese explodes into an aggressive patron’s face, through no fault of Vesper’s.
Once again jobless and frustrated, Vesper is overcome by a bout of homesickness. As if sensing her longing for family, an anonymous red envelope appears on her doorstep, inviting her back to the compound to celebrate the marriage of her cousin Rosemary and Vesper’s ex/first love Brody.
While most of Vesper’s community is happy to see her return, her mother is unmoved. Vesper’s mom, scream queen Constance Wright, has always been icy. She was either never around due to her filming schedule, passing off motherly duties to her sister Grace, or she actively derided and humiliated her daughter. Vesper’s own father has been mostly out of the picture, visiting sporadically when she was younger and then disappearing entirely. Part of Vesper’s motivation for leaving the cult was to find her dad and reconnect. She always suspected he wasn’t part of the “church” and was shunned for being an outsider.
I will say that Vesper is a complicated character and falls under the “unlikable heroine” umbrella. She’s bitchy, petty, and at times mean. The main reason why she accepted the invitation to Rosemary and Brody’s wedding was to wear a “revenge dress” and undermine their ceremony. But there are parts of Vesper I felt I intimately understood.
I have my own “mommy issues” and I recognized the hard, cruel shell Vesper had formed. I can count on several fingers the times I’ve heard, “You’re nicer than I thought you’d be” after people have gotten to know me. The lack of attachment to others resonated with my own fears that attachment meant vulnerability and opportunities for people to let you down and disappoint you. I identified with Vesper’s hope that, even after all their estrangement, that her mom would have been happy to see her or would somehow have taken the time to reflect and offer an apology for the way she’d treated her daughter. Girl, I feel you and shoutout to my therapist, Katie.
There’s a moment during the climax of the book, though, that felt like a truce between Vesper and Constance. I didn’t buy it and it undermined this moment of Vesper taking her power back. I would have preferred to see Vesper tell her off or give this cathartic, moving speech, but this lifelong baggage just sort of fizzled out. In fact, the bulk of the conflict fizzled out.
The first half of the book is heavy on tension as more and more things are revealed about Vesper and her upbringing. I loved all the dribs and drabs of context we got, though only the first of the three major plot reveals truly surprised me. Rather than Vesper slowly gaining agency as she realizes her family hasn’t changed and never will, she finds herself lured back into their manipulation over and over again. I’m familiar with that toxic cycle, but I was hoping for more of the fantasy of a daughter having the strength to truly confront her family. Give me that rage!
For a lot of us in similar relationships, we never quite get the opportunity to tell our parents how we really feel (usually out of fear of retribution). The reality is we may silently set boundaries, become more estranged, or not even break that cycle entirely. What I wanted was to be sucked into the fantasy of seeing a daughter truly stand up to her toxic mother, to live vicariously through her by making her mother confront her maternal failings since I don’t know if I will ever be able to do that with my own mom.
mild spoilers ahoy
Instead, the ending felt sad and rueful and lacked the fantasy I wanted. The tension of the story grew as more was revealed about Vesper and her family, and that tension seemed to indicate that a cathartic showdown might be coming, but I was a little let down when it did not.
I opted to listen to this one on audio and loved it. Narrator Jeremy Carlisle Parker nailed Vesper’s personality and did a fabulous job creating distinct voices for the surrounding cast. Cackle is still probably my favorite of Harrison’s books, but I appreciate her wicked twisting of relationships in wildly horrific and humorous scenarios.