ARC Review: The Smaller Evil by Stephanie Kuehn


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Sometimes the greater good requires the smaller evil.

17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.

Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.

The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.

And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.

As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.

review

3/5 Stars

***I received this eARC as a gift in exchange for an honest review via Penguin’s FirstToRead program 

***There is some mature content, like sex, not especially graphic but it’s there. Contains what could be triggers for mutilation and suicide.

If you’ve read any reviews on this book, you’ve probably seen the collective, what did I just read? trend. Sometimes that sentiment is unfounded, but The Smaller Evil is one trippy, confusing, psychological journey into self discovery and recovery from what is deemed a toxic outside world. 

Curious yet? You should be. The Smaller Evil is the type of book where you wait and wait and wait and wait some more for something-anything to happen. You’ll flip through page after page, cruising on that J.D. Salinger vibe of awkward, a little grotesque, and hyper personal, and hope for revelation. You get it, but what you do with it, whether you understand it, is a whole different ball game. The book drags on and on in this self-pitying, misanthropic tale of Arman, a teenager who has been treated as nothing and so believes he’s even less than that. He knows he’s worthless, but he wants to change. Arman has a myriad of problems-ADD, GERD, self-mutilation, suicidal tendencies a regular cocktail of teenage angst and depression to the extreme. All of these sort of pop up randomly and will leave you questioning Arman’s reliability as a character.

There’s a big coming of age aspect to the story that’s a bit off-putting in some ways because it’s just so freaking weird. Sometimes I felt repulsed, other times I questioned every single character’s mental stability. 

A ton of misdirects. Just when you think you have an inkling of what is going on at the compound guess again. Something always pops up to throw you off, and believe me, when you get to that ending, you’ll never have seen that coming and I’m still not sure WHY. The how is there, but the why is fuzzy. Why go through such lengths? It’s crazy, yet somehow innovative.

The story itself, there’s not a huge plot focus. It’s more an internal journey for each character into finding their problems, questioning them, and looking for ways to fix them that might be out of the box. Up until, I’d say 200 or so pages, you’ll wonder why you’re still reading when so little has happened.

The compound, Evolve, is a hippie-retreat catered towards inner development and inoculation against the negative forces and influences of the outside world. Bullying, self-doubt, horrible parents, things like that (vectors in the story) that shape you and break your spirit. There are so many questions that are never answered. Why so few young people? Is it a cult? Why the extremes?

You can tell someone with a psychology degree wrote this.

When the plot twist happens, it’s a letdown. Why? Because it’s completely unsatisfying. Sure, it resulted in some moderate improvement but why????

There are some beautifully pointed psychological insights into humanity. Lots of quotable, profound material. There are also what appear to be journal entries or a how-to sort of guide mingled in with the chapters. These may be confusing and frustrating for some because up until the end, you’ll have no clue who wrote them or why.

All in all, The Smaller Evil was hard to rate. It was a decent read, it kept me interested, and I read it straight through. The urge to know what was going on was the driving force behind my single-minded focus to get to the end. 

If you like any of the following, you’ll enjoy this:

Addictive reading,

Jordan

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