The Roanoke Girls lulled me into a false sense of security. The first chapters ably introduce Roanoke, a sprawling farmhouse in the middle of rural Kansas, and family black sheep Lane Roanoke, who returns to her family’s ancestral home years after a traumatic summer sent her running as fast as she could in the opposite direction. The disappearance of her cousin Allegra brings Lane back to her privileged grandparents and the summer fling she never quite got over, forcing her to deal with the dark things in her past while searching for her lost cousin.
Based on those first few, perfectly capable pages, a reader may believe they know how The Roanoke Girls will end. But Engel drops a wicked twist in the first 35 pages—in the middle of a paragraph on the middle of the page—and lets it sit like a coiled snake.
It’s a twist that most authors would save for the last chapter, and from that point on, The Roanoke Girls becomes a thrilling mystery and a satisfyingly gothic portrait of Middle America. But Engel is also interested in the things that break people and how they try to put themselves back together again. She deepens the typical tropes of the small-town mystery genre, using every sheltered country boy and fading matriarch to illustrate how people can silently, slowly shatter.
Lane’s high school sweetheart is as damaged as she is, and the pair cleaves to each other with a jagged-edged desperation before tearing themselves instinctively away. It’s a painfully human, rough-hewn romance, and Engel balances it beautifully against Lane’s investigation into the fate of her cousin. Both threads braid together as the novel circles the mystery at its heart and The Roanoke Girls transforms into a dark fable of trauma and acceptance about damaged people accepting their crooked parts and using them to move forward.