Romy Grey, the first-person narrator of “All The Rage,” is the victim of date rape – but more important, of rape culture, which excuses rape with such familiar phrases as “she led him on”; “she dressed seductively”; “she was drunk”; in other words, she asked for it. At a time when rape culture is an explosive subject on college campuses, a novel about the subject is in continual danger of degenerating into an ideological lecture. Greatly to Courtney Summers’ credit, “All The Rage” avoids this danger. It’s a skillfully paced, painful novel that elucidates the confused, confusing consciousness of a 17-year-old rape victim and perceptively portrays her isolation in the small town that rejects her.
The book opens with a flashback that describes the nightmare scenario in which Romy’s dream date, Kellan Turner – handsome football star, graduating senior, son of the town’s sheriff – takes her out to his truck because she’s sick from drinking too much … and instead of driving her home, rapes her, insisting that she “wants it,” and putting his hand over her mouth when she tries to scream. The scene cuts (confusingly) to one in which Romy awakens to find herself lying on a back road, half dressed, sick, and with no memory of how she got there.
Gradually, the connection between the two events unfolds, and the misery of Romy’s position becomes clear. In the year that has passed since the rape, Kellan has left town and found work with his reputation unblemished. But Romy is still in the high school senior class, dominated by Kellan’s brother, his bullying friend Brock, and his “perfect” girlfriend Jenny (once Romy’s friend) – and she’s universally condemned as the slut, the liar, the bitch, the town drunk’s daughter who seduced Kellan Turner and called it rape. The girls with whom she used to hang out steal her underwear after gym and display it prominently in the school; Brock deliberately trips her in track, seriously hurting her knees. Romy’s mother and her new partner are concerned and sympathetic, but there is little they can do, partly because she doesn’t reveal the extent to which she’s being bullied, but mostly because as Romy puts it, “You speak against a Turner, you best pray you never need help in this town.”
The only place Romy can go to escape this poisonous atmosphere is the out-of-town diner where she works; there she meets Leon, who, coming from a different town and an utterly different social milieu, knows nothing about her past. They date; she likes him. But as she finds he is unable to make her feel like the girl she was before the rape, she mistrusts (and mistreats) him in a way that confuses them both. Then, after the classic end-of-the year party, Romy awakens on the dirt road to find that she’s not the only victim of the event she can’t remember: the “perfect” Jenny has also gone missing. As the town is gradually forced to believe that something terrible has happened to both girls, the book hurtles to a fast-paced, wrenching conclusion.
Skillfully placing the problem of rape culture in a larger context not just of high school bullying but of small-town politics, “All The Rage” takes a hard look at “she asked for it” assumptions – without ignoring the mistakes that made Romy vulnerable. She didn’t ask for it: she asked for love, for cool, for beauty, for acceptance – for the dream of being “all the rage.” Her story is a gripping read about the seductive glamor of drink, drugs, sexiness – and the betrayal of the teens, both male and female, who unthinkingly worship false gods.
“All the Rage” is available through Wilmington’s Pettee Memorial Library, Dover Free Library, Whitingham Free Public Library or Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington, and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar From Vermont,” are both set in Wilmington.