A young boy’s murder unleashes chaos in the life of a schoolteacher and a small New England town.
Bradley, Massachusetts is in many ways a typical small New England town, but a river divides it in half—on one side, the East End: crowded triple-deckers, the Most Precious Blood parish, and a Brazilian immigrant community; and on the other, the West End: renovated Victorians, Brandywine Academy, and families with last names as venerable as the Mayflower.
Deirdre Murphy and her partner Sara Jane (SJ) Edmonds have just moved to their first house—and for the first time are open in their relationship—in the West End, where Deirdre teaches at Brandywine Academy. A dedicated teacher from a working-class background, she is well loved by her students. But the murder of ten-year-old Leo Rivera from the East End changes everything—for Deirdre and SJ, for the girls at Brandywine, and for all of Bradley. And when Deirdre is falsely accused of sexually molesting one of her students, the entire town erupts.
The Year of Needy Girls by Patricia A. Smith
Publication Date: January 3, 2017 by Kaylie Jones Books
The Year of Needy Girls starts with a really strong premise, but ultimately fails to deliver on what it sets out to do. The reader is drawn in by the dueling plot lines: the horrific rape and murder of a young boy on the other side of town and the accusations against the main character, Deirdre, of sexually assaulting one of her female students.
The murder story line never seems to go anywhere and I was left wondering what the reader was supposed to gain from Leo Rivera’s death. There was not enough time spent on it and it seemed like this particular aspect of the plot was meant more to highlight the prejudices in their small, wealthy, New England town in relation to the accusations against Deirdre and their fear of homosexuality. There was something uncomfortable for me about this piece of the story line as someone who works in an urban school district because it felt like it was meant more to shock rather than add any depth to the overall story.
As a character study, The Year of Needy Girls fails as well. Deirdre is a vapid, one-dimensional individual who teeters on the edge of unhealthy obsession with her career and her students. Again, as someone who works in education I may hold some biases of my own, but it was difficult to feel any sympathy for Deirdre for while she was clearly not a sexual predator by any means, her behavior definitely placed her in that category of teachers who exhibit a lack of appropriate borders with their students.
Deirdre’s partner, SJ, also lacked depth and her own individual storyline seemed more like filler than something that added to any character development as the novel progressed. I’m not one to shy away from unlikeable characters, but there was something that just fell flat with both of them that I had difficulty becoming invested in the slow unravelling of their relationship or feeling any sort of empathy for either of their situations.
There was something very Puritanical as well about many of the character’s personal judgements or beliefs regarding homosexuality. While there are definitely plenty of people out there that are as ignorant as those in this novel, I found it difficult to believe that SO many people in Deirdre’s life could hold such assumptions up as truths, particularly in Massachussetts at the time the book is set to take place. This particular “witch hunt” aspect of the novel clashed with the timeframe and it made less of an impact on me as I felt baffled by how all these particular events could add up.
While there are a lot of issues with the book as a whole, I did enjoy Smith’s writing and that is ultimately what helped me to finish reading this through to the end. Unfortunately, this isn’t a book I would recommend for those looking for a crime thriller or a solid LGBT narrative since I didn’t feel as if The Year of Needy Girls delivered on either front.