The Smaller Evil - Stephanie Kuehn

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. 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.

I am a huge fan of Stephanie Kuehn. Charm & Strange is gorgeous, Complicit is haunting, and Delicate Creatures is just plain disturbing (in fascinating ways)! I don't like knowing how much I love an author's work and then realizing there's one in the oeuvre that I'm not as much a fan of. This is not to say that The Smaller Evil is a bad book, not by any means, but more that I found it less clear and consistent than her other works to date.

In the synopsis and earlier in the book, there is much made of the fact that Arman has a meth-head stepfather, and yet that line of story is barely touched on through much of the later narrative, which I found to be a missed opportunity for even more tension and higher stakes. Beau is a super intriguing character, though I'm not entirely sure, in the end, what his connection to Arman was/is and how he was attempting to help Arman through the retreat.

Secondary characters were well rounded and I thought their ambiguity was impressively handled. At times there were more nefarious characters brought up and then dropped out of the narrative, which confused me and made me wonder what their overall purpose was within the larger arc of the story. All that being said, Arman's relationships with those around him, especially due to the effects of his medications and psychological issues, were handled with deft hands, as always happens in Kuehn's novels.


(NOTE: This review is from an Advance Reading Copy - Out Aug. 2, 2016)


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