In her author's note, E. K. Johnston admits straight out that she wrote this book while very, very angry. I bet she did. This is a fucking great novel.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is about a teenage rape survivor. Hermione, a popular athlete - co-captain of her cheerleading team - is drugged, raped, and left half-submerged in a lake. She cannot remember the crime or identify her attacker. She is angry, hurt, and sad, but she and her team and her family tackle each step of her recovery process with courage, love, and determination.
And there you have the bare bones of your standard-issue Problem Novel, during the course of which we will watch our heroine struggle bravely to regain her confidence, conquer her self-doubt, and perhaps find love. Excuse me while I never ever read a book like that again. Maybe, because Emily Johnston has written this book, I never have to.
Because Hermione does NOT struggle with self-doubt. She is quite clear that the only person to blame here is the guy who attacked her, and if she even momentarily loses her clarity on that score, her best friend Polly is burning with fury at her side, ready to remind her. Nor does Hermione have to deal with parental shellshock or smothering. Hermione's team rallies around her - even the boys try to act normal, with mostly pathetic results (ehh, boys). When she slaps her ex-boyfriend, whose stance is that "she'd have been safe if she'd been dancing with me," her therapist is eager to hear how hard. And when Hermione stops in to see the pastor to ask him to stop reminding the congregation to remember her in their prayers - she does not WANT to be Hermione the Rape Victim and who can blame her - the pastor looks her in the eye with compassion but not pity.
Everyone holds their breath when she has to endure examinations, pregnancy tests, and a termination procedure, but they never once utter the word "options" - which Hermione notices with gratitude.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a freaking casebook of How to Think and Do when dealing with a victim of sexual assault.
And in the hands of a lesser writer, this might result in tedium or sanctimony. It might at least be distracting. I think we've all seen movies like that - cancer movies especially perhaps. Debra Winger spewing love and forgiveness from her hospital bed in Terms of Endearment, Susan Sarandon nobly handing over the reins to Julia Roberts in Stepmom.
But bless her, E.K. Johnston (author of The Story of Owen, which is my sons' hands-down favorite book of all time right now, and in my own top ten) is NOT a lesser writer. I read this book in three hours, propelled onward by characters I loved and who loved each other. It is marketed as a cross between Veronica Mars and A Winter's Tale, but honestly I saw more Jessica Jones in it than Mars - Hermione faces her trauma with some of Jessica's belligerence (but none of her bourbon), and the friendship between Hermione and Polly is just as rock-solid as Jessica's relationship with Trish. Remember, at the end of the series, the big climax is Jessica telling her best friend that she loves her? Same thing here. "I love you." "I know."
I imagine that Emily Johnston wrote this book after seeing yet another young rape victim publicly blamed for the crime perpetrated against her. I imagine that she sat down, all gritted teeth and flared nostrils and hair on fire, and wrote this book for all those girls, to show them that SOMEBODY knows the right way to treat them, to talk to them and about them. And if that's what we need, if we, as parents, faculty, friends, cops, teammates need a template for how to respond in a situation we hope no woman ever has to endure, well, now we have it. Lucky for us it's a compulsive, easy read, because I'm hoping it gets assigned in about a million advisories, homerooms, and health classes.
Look for this stellar work of realistic fiction in March, 2016.