The Russell family is splitting up. Dad, never home much anyway, is moving out for good. The eldest daughter, Jan, is headed away for her first year at Brown. So now it’s just Mom, pretty and headstrong 15-year-old Melanie and gorgeous but oblivious 16-year-old Erika. The two sisters are not friends, but on Halloween, they both attend a party with highly spiked punch. Melanie gets so wasted that she’s barely aware of coming on to Gerald, a friend who has worshipped Melanie for years. For his part, Gerald is so thrilled by Melanie’s sexual advances that he fails to notice that she’s passed out before the end. Erika is there when Melanie is found stretched out on the floor, undressed from the waist down.
Claire Needell’s debut novel explores the definition of rape through Melanie’s story: Is it rape if Melanie was too drunk to remember having sex, much less give consent? Despite the urgency of this topic, it gets a bit buried amid subplots concerning Jan’s relationship with her boyfriend, the eccentricities of Jan’s college roommate, Erika’s quirky naiveté and too-frequent analyses of each sister’s temperament. The numerous viewpoints seem to dilute the central issue rather than reveal its complexity.
Nevertheless, readers who are interested in timely issues, such as those explored in the novels by Jennifer Brown or Ellen Hopkins, will be intrigued by the important questions raised here. An author’s note further clarifies the definition of rape.
Diane Colson is the Library Director at City College in Gainesville, Florida.