The Roanoke Girls

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The Roanoke Girls starts with a punch in the gut and doesn’t let up on the discomfort until you discard it, days later, wondering what kind of twisted world you just left behind. Lane Roanoke is 15 when her mother hangs herself from her bedroom doorknob (not a spoiler, happens in the opening line) and if that makes you squirm, it’s nothing to how you feel as the rest of the story unfolds. Her mothers’ death is simply the catalyst that sets the story in motion.

Told in alternating “Then” and “Now” chapters, the story of the Roanoke Girls is unfurled. Beginning with the “Then”, Lane, 15, having recently discovered her mother dead in their New York City apartment, returns to the custody of her maternal grandparents in her mother’s home, an estate aptly named “Roanoke”, located in rural Kansas outside a town called Osage Flats. She’s met there by her boisterous cousin Allegra who quickly educates her on the history of the so-called Roanoke Girls. It turns out that in addition to her dead mother, Lane also has some dead aunts, and some dead great aunts, and a couple other runaway female relatives who might as well be dead. As Allegra puts it, “Roanoke Girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or die.”

So that’s a pretty ominous beginning. Notice Allegra says they either “run” or die. Not leave. Not move on to something better than rural Kansas. They run. So what the hell are they running from? Just you wait.

The “Now” chapters begin with a phone call adult Lane receives from her grandfather informing her that her cousin Allegra is now the Roanoke Girl gone missing and that Lane needs to come back. Lane, it seems, got the hell out of Roanoke after spending one summer there and we’re not totally sure why. But for one reason or another, this call is all it takes to get her back there.

The rest of the book spins the tale of what happened that one summer that caused Lane to leave with the present day Lane investigating her cousin Allegra’s disappearance, sure of foul play by someone close to her.

Before I proceed to the spoilers I’d like to say that I think this book was well-written and well-paced. The story is interesting and it has a certain quality about it that makes you want to keep reading no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter.

But now…



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This isn’t the biggest spoiler because it starts coming out fairly early on as we learn the stories of each Roanoke Girl that has come before, but it basically boils down to…Grandpa’s sleeping with everyone.

Starting with his sister. And so he’s basically the father of all the Roanoke Girls. So Lane and Allegra are cousins and sisters. And their grandpa was sleeping with both of their moms at the same time. And before that he was sleeping with both of his sisters at the same time. And he has a wife that lives with him who he’s also I guess sometimes sleeping with who is WATCHING THIS ALL HAPPEN.


The story revolves around Lane being the one to blow on the house of cards because she’s the last Roanoke Girl, the one that got away, the one that never slept with Grandpa. But she’s a really hollow character. Obviously she’s really messed up and she acts like it, but she is also weirdly drawn to her grandfather and can’t seem to buck off the idea that “Roanoke Girls are special” which is the mantra Grandpa lives by and I guess the way he gets all these girls to fall for him. As special as a weird, incestuous bond can be I guess.

The subject matter is too off-putting and the reader doesn’t feel any sort of bond between any of the characters which makes it really difficult to understand their motivations. Especially when they’re all out her acting like incest is a normal part of life.

Lane does ultimately solve the crime though. She finds Allegra’s body in the old swimming hole and the autopsy proves that she was right about foul play. Allegra was strangled. BUT BY WHO!?

Grandpa is the obvious choice, but it turns out he really did love all his girls in a messed up way. Or at least he didn’t murder any of them.

Allegra had a habit of carving words into things, and after a fevered search, Lane finds the word “Gran” carved into her favorite carousel pony.

Lane confronts Gran. Gran did do it! Allegra was pregnant and Gran was sick of watching her husband fall in love with generation after generation of Roanoke Girl so she had to end it! She wants Grandpa to herself finally!


Do you see why this is all so far off the rails? There’s no way you can keep a story like this on any sort of believable course, even if you did like the characters.

But Allegra gets her justice. And then, in what I considered the sickest part, after Gran gets arrested for Allegra’s murder, Lane’s grandfather still tries to get her to stay! He tells her that they could make it work if she stayed. MAKE IT WORK AS A COUPLE. AND SHE ENTERTAINS IT FOR A SECOND.

And it’s all supposed to be because of this bond. And I’m just not buying it.

So all-in-all, the writing was good, I did not find it hard to cross the finish line, I even enjoyed tiny, tiny parts of it, but as a whole, I can’t get behind it. The story is too crazy and weighted in unbelievable characters and plots. And everyone is crazy. I hate stories where everyone is crazy. There is nothing redeemable about any of them. No one to root for.

But I encourage you to make up your own mind about it! It’s a quick read, and I’d love some conversation. If you’ve already read it, let me know what you thought in the comments!

I’d like to thank Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy of Roanoke Girls for review. View excerpts of this and other work by Amy Engel at her website.