Review: Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Alice and the Fly Book Cover Alice and the Fly
James Rice

A spellbinding debut novel by an exceptional new young British talent.

This is a book about phobias and obsessions, isolation and dark corners. It's about families, friendships, and carefully preserved secrets. But above everything else it's about love. Finding love - in any of its forms - and nurturing it.

Miss Hayes has a new theory. She thinks my condition's caused by some traumatic incident from my past I keep deep-rooted in my mind. As soon as I come clean I'll flood out all these tears and it'll all be ok and I won't be scared of Them anymore. The truth is I can't think of any single traumatic childhood incident to tell her. I mean, there are plenty of bad memories - Herb's death, or the time I bit the hole in my tongue, or Finners Island, out on the boat with Sarah - but none of these are what caused the phobia. I've always had it. It's Them. I'm just scared of Them. It's that simple.

Review:

I received a free copy of this book from the author via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I’m hard-pressed to express my feelings regarding Alice and the Fly. If I were to rate this book purely on enjoyability, I would only be able to grant it 2 stars – it’s definitely not a cheery novel, and I wouldn’t classify it as a pleasant reading experience. In fact, I’m not sure I can even say that I liked this book. That said, I have to credit James Rice for his storytelling abilities – this book is original, surprising, and boasts a thought-provoking plot.

Alice and the Fly is narrated by Greg, a young man who suffers from a crippling phobia and extreme social awkwardness. Nicknamed “Psycho” by his peers, Greg is an outcast at school and at home. The only bright spot in his miserable world is his classmate Alice, to whom the book is addressed in the form of a letter/journal.

Alice and the Fly gets major points for being completely unexpected. I confess that, at first, I thought I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going. The book has a distinct The Perks of Being A Wallflower vibe, and I couldn’t help comparing the two stories at every turn. There are lots of parallels between the two: an epistolary format, a lonely narrator on the fringes of the social scene, a concerned teacher who tries to guide him through life, a childhood friend who’s passed away, etc. Also similar to Perks is the feeling that there’s some sort of buried trauma, though you don’t know what it might be.

The more I read, though, the more I realized that Alice and Perks are two very different books. One major difference is that Charlie, the protagonist in Perks, is endearing; Greg is harder to feel close to. Even though the majority of the book is written from his perspective, I always felt like he was a million miles away. And, though I sympathized with Greg, I can’t say that I empathized with him. In fact, at times he made me downright uncomfortable. He fixates on Alice, secretly following her around, lurking outside her home, and relying upon proximity to her (without her knowledge) for comfort. There’s one scene where Greg picks up Alice’s discarded cigarette butt and puts it in his mouth in order to feel close to her, then holds the smoldering nub of the cigarette in his hand until it burns a crater in his palm, because he’s unwilling and unable to let it go.

Another big difference between Alice and Perks is the family dynamic. The characterization of Greg’s parents is masterful, one of my favorite things about Rice’s book. The best words to describe them would be “preoccupied” and “self-absorbed.” Greg’s dad, a plastic surgeon, is a workaholic who’s so immersed in his work that he brings pre- and post-operative photos to the dinner table, and eats with only one hand so he can shuffle through his paperwork with the other. Greg’s mom is even more fascinating. She’s an anxiety-ridden social climber who’s constantly redesigning and renovating the house, fussing over gourmet coffees, and perfecting her charred salmon entrée to impress her hoity-toity, high society friends.

I would go so far as to say that Greg’s mom is one of the book’s biggest testaments to Rice’s talent as a writer. She’s got all the elements of your typical rich, appearance-obsessed housewife, but without being a cliché; Rice rounds out the stereotypical characteristics with other traits that show the complexity of the mother’s character. Her positive attributes are pronounced, as are her flaws and vulnerabilities. She’s surprisingly tender at times, shockingly fragile at others. I’d happily read an entire book about Greg’s mom, just to learn more about what makes her tick.

Something else I liked about Alice is that Rice does a great job of keeping you guessing up until the end. Given how distant Greg is, you get the feeling that you’re missing pieces of the narrative, or at least pieces of what you should know about his life. There are his frequent allusions to the unnamed “Them,” as well as hints about something that happened to his sister at some place called Finner’s Island. Interspersed with Greg’s narration to Alice are transcripts of worrisome interviews with Greg’s family, which build a sense of mystery and anticipation, giving you the impression that the story’s leading up to something big.

My biggest rub with Alice and the Fly is its bleakness. I get that novels can’t – and shouldn’t – be rainbows and sunshine all the time, but the ugliness and grimness in this particular book were oppressive and unrelenting. There’s little to no brightness to mitigate the awfulness, and because of how distant Greg is, you can’t even turn to him for comfort or solidarity.

This bleakness, coupled with how hard it was for me to connect with Greg, made me hesitate before I finally gave Alice and the Fly a 4-star rating. To be perfectly honest, I don’t see myself ever rereading this book, and I admit I’d be happy to put it behind me. That said, I can’t deny that it’s fantastically plotted and written. The story is admirably crafted by a very talented author, and I did not see the ending coming (I’m always pleased when a book can surprise me that way). My suggestion is that if you’re at all intrigued by my review of Alice and the Fly, you should give the book a shot. It may not make you feel good, but it will keep you thinking about its characters and plot long after you put it back on the shelf.