Having really enjoyed Andrea Bartz’s debut novel, The Lost Night, I had rather high hopes for The Herd. Sadly, not only is The Herd populated by simultaneously unrealistic and detestable characters but it also tells a rather derivative story.
The summary seemed to promise a tantalising story, one that would depict the complicated and shifting dynamics in an all-female co-working space. What we actually get is the usual cliched storyline that focuses on a group of friends, one of whom happens to be more successful/famous than the others.
The plot is predictable and boring, most of the suspense is created by our not knowing the narrators’ secrets. There was no real tension or atmosphere. The HERD centre is never the focal point of the story but a mere prop, one that led to scenes in which this group of friends can go on and talk about ‘the male gaze’ and the ‘patriarchy’.
“The one way to win, the one fucking way to be a woman and do well in this world is to stomp on other women’s backs.”
While originality wasn’t The Lost Night’s strongest point, it more than made up for it by having a striking sense of place and time. In The Herd however New York and the HERD centre fade into the background.
Eleanor Walsh is the classic female character who appears in this type of so-called ‘psychological’ novels. We are told that she is the basic embodiment of the perfect modern woman: beautiful, intelligent, charismatic, a feminist. Being told that she is alluring or interesting doesn’t actually make her those things.
Her disappearance unfolds in a predictable way: her closest friends decide to embark on their own investigation even if there is a detective working the case. Katie and Hana are sisters and both were close to Eleanor. In alternating chapters we read of their amateurish attempts at finding out what Eleanor was hiding. They are also hiding things from one another and they are both trying to forget about a ‘traumatising’ incident from their pasts.
They spend most chapters getting scared by their own ringtones, wondering whether Eleanor is dead, receiving help by their conveniently gifted friends (such as a hacker), and feeling sorry for themselves.
That’s more or less it.
Add two or three attractive and possibly guilty of something or other male characters and there ya have it: The Herd.
The novel tries to critique a certain brand of feminism by portraying how hypocritical certain female entrepreneurs are: in spite of their ‘empowering’ agendas they still encourage their female associates to spend hours on end on their appearances or they are actually profiteering from other women’s insecurities.
If the HERD centre had actually been the focal point of this novel I think that the story could have been a lot more engaging as well as providing us with a more cutting commentary on certain facets of contemporary feminism. What we have instead is a predictable narrative about two sisters, both of whom think that the other one has it better than they do.
Lousy story and characters aside there are a few other things about this novel that really frustrated me:
✖ This group of friends lacks chemistry. Where they even friends to begin with? Why should I care about ‘backstabbing’ and ‘lies’ when they seem to sort of dislike each other from the get go?
✖ The ‘twist’ is almost identical to the one in The Lost Night so I saw it from miles away. Isn’t that a bit of a cheap trick? The reveal and final face-off are incredibly reminiscent of the ones in The Lost Night.
✖ The sisters’ ‘secrets’…one seemed recycled from similar novels while the other one was laughable (view spoiler)[(a husband walks in on his wife cheating with him with another woman and he has a heart attack?! Come on!) (hide spoiler)].
✖ The writing…in The Lost Night there were a few phrases which struck me as very debut-like (examples being “a new thought, opening like an umbrella” and “happiness rushing up through me like froth”). I wasn’t expecting the writing in The Herd to be so much more aggravating. Most pages in this novel have to do with what Katie and Hana feel and think. But they never simply feel or think things. Their feelings and thoughts blossom, billow, plume, or fan out:
-“I said it without thinking, the idea booming out of me like a cannonball.”
-“Fear was fanning out inside of me, working outward from my gut.”
-“The realization that I knew almost nothing about this guy resurfaced like something bobbing up from the bottom of a lake.”
-“It rose through me without warning: a plume of anxiety, neon and strong”
-“The awkwardness plumed, filling up the room like smoke.”
-“Then, pushing through the fug of my worry for Eleanor, a heady sadness that billowed like incense,”
-“The idea bloomed in my skull as if someone else had whispered it to me.”
-“I watched her cry, feeling my impression of her shifting like tectonic plates inside my skull.”
-“A thought like a whisper”
-“sadness billowed in me, threatened to burst out from behind my face.”
This novel is basically pages and pages of purply phrases accentuating the special way in which the narrators think or feel.
✖ Overdramatic. As I’ve mentioned before characters are constantly overacting. They get scared by their phones (“My phone exploded with sound; I jumped so high, I practically bonked my head on the ceiling.”), they think that drums sound like gunfire (“We were looping scarves and tugging on hats when a sudden round of gunfire made us freeze. It started again. Not gunfire—drums, a drum line.”), they gasp at the silliest things in very dramatic fashion (“My mouth gaped open, an oval of shock.”), they are fumbling in their attempts not to let others know that they are actually trying to find Eleanor. A lot of ordinary actions were given a forced sense of urgency: “I was a human whirlwind, somehow whipping out a digital recorder, accepting the call, and putting her on speakerphone all in one scrambling swoop”.
✖ The narrators try really hard to come across as SERIOUS feminists so that as soon as a male character talks they think or say stuff like ‘he can’t understand what is like to be a woman’…more laughable still are phrases such as: “Samantha was washing silverware with the furious concentration of a frat guy playing flip cup” and “I futzed and fumbled, jabbing at the keyhole like an awkward teen during his first sexual encounter, until finally the door clicked open”.
✖ The way these female characters are portrayed promotes a rather one dimensional image of a feminist. While I could get behind the critique of this new wave of feminism, the story never truly delves into the complexities of female friendships or of an all-female workplace. The villain’s final monologue, however cheesy, actually had something interesting to say about the nature of certain female friendships….but that hardly makes up for the novel’s general lack of insight into these ‘female’ dynamics.
The ‘herd’ analogy appeared now and again but for the most part was largely underused. This novel wasn’t fascinating or chilling, it just was. If you haven’t read Bartz’s debut novel and you don’t happen to have a low tolerance for cringe-y proses, you might actually find The Herd to be entertaining.
my rating: ★★☆☆☆