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Radar Recommendations: Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn: The Final Girl Theory


Once upon a time, there was a girl named Beckett. She was young, innocent, unaware of the horrors that awaited her along the path of growing up. As Beckett began to walk this path in bare feet, she encountered a woman who was beautiful and cold and a young man who was gentle and kind. Beckett began to tremble; her father began to crumble. It was then that the girl knew there would be no happy ending for this princess - and that she would have to give up something near and dear to her if she were to survive this ordeal.

She would have to give up her innocence.

Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn almost sounds like a fairy tale when its plot is described ever so briefly: an only child, whose mother is dead and whose father is lonely, has her life changed by an evil stepmother. However, there are twists and rips in the typical pattern, and things and characters are not always as they seem. The setting is modern-day, the protagonist is a teenager attending high school, and the stepmother is the school nurse.

Beckett's journey is like something out of a dream, and Mendelsohn's writing is evocative and lyrical. I could talk about one or both of these things for days, and I will most likely share additional, individual thoughts on this title later.

However, I am not alone today. There are three bloggers who chose to discuss this book today: Colleen (CM) from Chasing Ray, Kiba (KH) from lectitans, and Little Willow (LW) from Bildungsroman. We exchanged lengthy emails about the characters, quotes, symbolism, and mythological and contemporary references that make Innocence so lyrical and memorable. Each of us will post one portion of our discussion today. Here is part one: The Final Girl Theory.

There's a character in every horror movie who doesn't die. She's the survivor, the Final Girl. She's the one who finds the bodies of her friends and understands that it is she who is in danger. She is the one who runs and suffers. She is the one who shrieks and falls. Her friends understand what is happening to them for no more than an instant before they die. But the Final Girl knows for hours, maybe days, that she is going to die. She hears death coming. She hears it. She sees it.

Welcome to my nightmare.
- The entirety of Chapter 4, Page 13

LW: What do you all think of The Final Girl theory? This book was the first time I had heard it referenced as such. I myself just acquired a role in a play in which I am the last girl standing, which made one of my friend’s joke that I am The Girl Who Lived, which made me think of the Final Girl theory. It was startling to apply that to myself - albeit in a fictional sense - since I've been utterly fascinated with the concept even before I heard that it had a name.

CM: I have heard of the Final Girl theory. I was in high school in the 1980s when all those movies: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on
Elm Street , etc. were hugely popular. We knew who was going to die from the very beginning and there was always that girl at the end who had seen it all and survived (generally the first one to die in the sequel though...:)

But one person remains, one girl, the Final Girl. She outlives the others. She wields the knife.

She runs like a maniac across the screen. She has blood in her hair and survival in her eyes. She stares hard at the monster. She's afraid of it, and then suddenly she's past being afraid. That's when the Final Girl kills the monster. She stabs it, again and again. When she's finished killing the monster, she slashes everything around her. Then she slices right through the screen. The Final Girl looks out through the gash in the screen, and she sees them, the bats looking hungrily up at her. She sees the silver dagger clenched in her hand, and just as she's about to let it go, she stabs herself in the heart. She feels the cold, silver dagger in her heart dissolve. She feels it morph into beads of mercury.

That's when she gets it. She gets the wisdom. And then she comes running off the screen.
- Page 145-146

KH: I think the Final Girl theory is fascinating. I am very interested in issues of gender identity, so the part that plays in the Final Girl theory really holds my interest. In Innocence, however, there are no male antagonists - with the exception of her father, just about everyone Beckett deals with is female. How does that change the significance of her being the Final Girl?

CM: You know I wondered about this - about how Mendelsohn has basically melded the thoroughly modern Final Girl theory with the much older evil stepmother idea. (Although from reading articles on fairy tales I believe the stepmother issue is more of a 19th century invention; that it was the actual parents who were evil way way back.) This is a female-centric book though - a hugely female-centric book. The Final Girl, evil stepmother, suicides of beautiful girls, menstruation . . . it seems there was a purposeful intent to remove men largely from the tale.

CM: (con't) Joss Whedon played with all this a bit as you know LW - except he embraced the girl who died first, the blonde cheerleader type - and pretty much made her the final girl. Buffy sees it all and survives it all and tells the tale. She's the only one who knows when the series starts - the only one from her old school that really knew what happened in the gym. Joss just changed all that by giving her friends who lived, etc.

KH: I couldn't tell you how many hours I've spent hashing out Buffy with LW, not even a little. (Many nights of lost sleep!)

(LW nods and smiles)

KH: What Joss did that is especially exciting I think is having the first blonde in the series, who might be the final girl, turn out to be a killer. (I'm referring to Darla here.) I know Darla isn't so very significant but that image of the sweet girl face turning into the demon face is powerful. Buffy is the anti-Final Girl kind of, but the gender fluidity issue comes into play here. Buffy is constantly killing bad guys, and always appropriating the phallus with her use of the stake. I'm not sure how much of that is just "Well that's how you kill a vampire" and how much is supposed to be gender fluidity. I do feel like a lot of men watched Buffy, without feeling great discomfort that we were expected to identify with this female protagonist. Buffy's villains, though, were almost uniformly male: the Master, Angel, the Mayor, Adam (though you could say something interesting about Maggie Walsh there I'm sure), Glorificus who took a female form but had a male name, was always described as a god and not a goddess, and shared a body with a man - then we have evil Willow and the First Evil, which don't really fit the pattern.

CM: Not to go off on a huge Buffy tangent (oh - if only we could....:) but I think evil Willow was separate from Buffy; she was a totally separate storyline that distanced itself from Buffy or perhaps showed that the only way to destroy her was through her friends. I do think that Mendelsohn has embraced the Final Girl theory hugely in this story - she's a virgin, she's naive, she has few friends, she ends up getting accepted by the "cool girls" and then sees all them die. And she was the true target all along - and thus the only one who really has a chance at winning.

Other interesting Buffy deal: Beckett is fairly unpopular or at least not a social butterfly as the book begins; Buffy was hugely popular and became unpopular as she embraced being the slayer. More of Joss's anti-Final Girl maneuvering.

So anyway - the Final Girl theory is great and very cool to see it played with here. (And perhaps this is why Beckett has a masculine name and further explanation for why Buffy has such a feminine one - she's the anti-Final Girl!)

We do have a combination of things here though in that the villain is a woman and classic figure - the stepmother. Why do you suppose it had to be a stepmother instead of the more expected stepfather?

KH: Is the stepfather more expected? I have always felt like a stepmother is the greatest threat to a girl: there's the notion that she has replaced the mother in the household, but also that she sort of replaces the girl in her father's affections. As the stepmother takes hold, the girl seems to become invisible. We very rarely see the father at all when there's a stepmother involved.

CM: I do agree that a stepmother is a great threat to a girl - but only if she is living with her father. A stepfather is a huge threat as well if you are living with your mother (trust me, I know). My thought about it being an expected stepfather was just going along with the Final Girl theory - in that case it would be a man that Beckett would be up against. But because her mother is dead, of course it has to be a woman who she fights (metaphorically or otherwise) for her father's affections. Step parents in general are enormously hard for any child/teen. It's the fact that you're parents are always likely to believe you, no matter way. It seems (to me anyway) that a step parent is always likely to doubt you and that doubting can turn your surviving parent against you (as we see with Beckett). She's fighting for her life, her sanity, and to prove to her father that she is the one who is truly worthy of his love.

Pretty heavy stuff when you think about it.

Continue to read the discussion at Chasing Ray (Part Two) and Lectitans (Part Three).


This is day three of Recommendations Under the Radar (or Radar Recommendations), a book review and discussion project in which a variety of literature bloggers have been participating this week. Radar Recs was dreamed up by Colleen of Chasing Ray as a way to shine the spotlight on some outstanding but often overlooked books. Here's my schedule.

Wednesday Round-Up
A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy: The President's Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White
Big A, little a: The Tide Knot by Helen Dunmore
Jen Robinson's Book Page: The Green Sky trilogy by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Bildungsroman, Chasing Ray, and Lectitans: Innocence by Jane Mendesohn (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three)
Finding Wonderland: The House on Hound Hill by Maggie Prince
Miss Erin: The Reb & Redcoats and Enemy Brothers by Constance Savery
Bookshelves of Doom: Harry Sue by Sue Stauffacher
Interactive Reader: Shake Down the Stars by Frances Donnelly
Chicken Spaghetti: Romina's Rangoli by Malathi Michelle Iyengar
Writing & Ruminating: Dear Mr. Rosenwald by Carole Weatherford
Shaken & Stirred: The Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox

Check out other roundtable discussions posted at Bildungsroman.

Read my 2011 interview with Jane Mendelsohn.
Tags: blog tour, books, radar recommendations, reviews, roundtables

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  • Red Hands by Christopher Golden

    A new Christopher Golden book is here, and I can't wait to get my hands on it! Here's the jacket flap summary for Red Hands: In bestselling author…

  • Annual Book Fair for Ballou High School

    It's that time again! Colleen Mondor has once again organized a book fair for the students of Ballou Senior High School. This time, the books are…

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    Total number of books read in 2019: 170 Here is my list of my favorite books I read this year, listed in the order in which they were read. Click…