The Swallows, by Lisa Lutz**-***

2.5 rounded up.

Alexandra Witt is desperate for work and to get out from under parental pressure, and so she accepts a job teaching at Stonebridge Academy, a third tier boarding school. She uncovers a dark tradition that victimizes female students, and she helps them fight back. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As the story opens, Witt discovers that a sick sext of a girl in her first class is circulating; students are commenting on it with their phones during her class. For no reason that I can discern, Witt doesn’t take this problem to counseling or administration, but decides to deal with it, and with the larger problem it represents, by becoming an unofficial advisor to an unofficial revenge club. This turns out to be the better idea, because at Stonebridge, the faculty are either complicit, in denial, or too caught up in their own private woes to care.  At any rate, this hip new teacher is dubbed “the Pied Piper of Stonebridge Academy,” and students—mainly girls–begin confiding in her.

My response to this book mirrors Lutz’s earlier novel, The Passenger. The beginning grabs me immediately, and the author’s crackling wit and swift pacing make me certain I am going to love this book. As the story develops, I occasionally doubt the credibility of a detail here or there, and as a teacher, I wince at the willingness Witt shows in tossing colleagues under the bus, but the story on the whole is still entertaining enough that I set my doubts aside. You can never enjoy a thriller without buying the premise, and so I continue, thinking now that maybe this is a four star read rather than five, but it’s still absorbing, and I want to see where it goes. But when I reach 66%, cracks start to form and so at the climax, instead of being riveted, I feel as if I’ve been had.

The tipping point for me is the amount of prurient detail given to the various sexual acts, most of them either sexual assaults or sex as payback. It is as if the reader is expected to get a charge out of this material, but since there’s obviously something seriously wrong with it, Lutz casts it as a call to arms so that readers won’t feel guilty about immersing themselves in sleaze.  I was ready to toss it aside at 66 percent; that’s enough for me, friends. I don’t care how it ends anymore.  But at the same time I was on the hook for a review and I could tell the rest would be a fast read, so I gritted my teeth and finished it.

And there’s the other problem, a common one in this genre: it’s always so much easier to set a thriller up than it is to resolve it. The way this story plays out has no feminist spark whatsoever—thus nullifying even the faint murmur of MeToo that could be found earlier if you squinted a little and didn’t think too hard—and is also preposterous.

A lot of other people have read this book and loved it; call me a hard-ass if you will. But I always call them as I see them, and I see this as dross. Don’t pay full freight unless your pockets are deep and your tolerance phenomenal. Or you could just buy a better book instead.

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