I am not abandoning early horror fiction—not by a long shot. But when I first heard of Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire, I could not resist.
Then, all of a sudden, it passed. The spasm apparently left her body, like an ebbing tide. Her eyes opened. She blinked and sat up, looking vaguely confused, but not displeased, to find us all gathered around her. By the time the nurse came, she seemed normal again. She insisted it was just a weak spell, because she hadn’t eaten. The nurse led Kaycee out of the classroom, and the whole time she was glancing back at us over her shoulder as if to be sure we were all watching her go. And we were—of course we were. She was the kind of person you couldn’t help but watch.
We all forgot about it. Or pretended to.
Then, three days later, it happened again.
An excerpt from Bonfire.
Kyrsten Ritter’s Bonfire was published in late 2017 by Crown Archetype, a division of Penguin Random House. In addition to the hardcover version, I purchased the audiobook version of Bonfire, narrated by Karissa Vacker and published by Random House Audio. This post will not reveal any direct story spoilers. However, there may be clues as to how the plot plays out.
Krysten Ritter was born on 16 December 1981, and raised in a small farm town in Pennsylvania. She began her modeling career while in high school after being scouted at a shopping mall. Following high school, Ritter moved to New York City to advance her modeling career which subsequently exploded on to the international scene.
Ritter’s film career began soon after her discovery as a model. She has acted in a variety of mediums, from commercials and bit parts to leading roles. Most recently, her career expanded with her being cast as the title role in Jessica Jones, part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s television series on Netflix. Also, it was recently announced that Jessica Jones’ third season would begin production soon.
Though I have not seen any of her previous film or television work, I am a fan of Ritter’s portrayal of Jessica Jones. Thus, when I discovered that she had published a novel, even one with no supernatural elements, I was curious. Bonfire is Ritter’s first novel. I sincerely hope it is not her last.
Technically, even though Bonfire is a “legal thriller” ala Erin Brockovich, it is more a mystery within a mystery, or more like a mystery within a cover-up hiding another mystery (but not the one you thought). The legal thriller aspect of this book is the overt impetus behind the story. It rapidly becomes obvious that the legal issue is merely the means to an end, that of bringing people and place together in order to resolve the story.
The reader is lead to believe they have the intricate storyline figured out. Then, BAM! A new plot twist sets you off in another direction and everything you were sure of is overturned. Ritter manages this misdirection masterfully; not appearing forced or contrived. Each is plausible within the context of the narrative.
The narrative is told through the character of Abby – a former resident of this small town who got out and became an attorney. Her words, thoughts, feelings, interactions make up the entirety of the story. So much so that as Abby’s reasoning leads her down the wrong path, we are taken down that erroneous path with her.
In addition to the intricacies of the plotline, Ritter’s stylistic strengths contribute greatly to the success of the novel. She was able to present, convincingly I think, flawed characters that bear believable emotional baggage. For example, her depiction of Abby’s habit of compulsive hand-washing leaves the reader with a feeling of ill-ease. Also, Abby is tormented by what she later comes to know as repressed memories from a decade previous when attending a bonfire in present time blends with memories of a bonfire from the past
In writing this legal thriller, Ritter worried that detailed legal jargon would lose her readers interest and bore them. Happily for all of us, she was able to resolve this concern.
During a YouTube interview conducted by BUILD Series, Ritter detailed her entire writing process, addressing this particular concern at the 14 minute 45 second mark:
“But I would write, overwrite those sections, and then they would kind of read like VCR instructions. Mm, and then, I was like ‘Oh right, I don’t need to explain how, what are the steps going about this because that’s what Krysten would do, but the character wouldn’t actually do that because she knows it and it’s a short-hand. So she should be able to talk about this stuff the way I talk about my real life job and my acting and whatever, like shorthand—get in, get out.”[i]
The chapters of Bonfire are short and there are many of them, like scenes in a script. This trait of Ritter’s writing style enhanced the impact of her words and reflected her career in acting. Bonfire is told in a first-person treatment, mostly inside the protagonist’s head. There was no room for anything extraneous to the story. All information presented to the reader was necessary to the plotline.
Months before its release, at BookCon 2017, on a panel moderated by Penguin Random House, Ritter discussed the writing of Bonfire.
The moderator asked her about the short, very lean chapters. She replied that the chapters are like a TV script: “It either has to move character forward or story forward. And, I’m pretty good about cutting stuff.”[ii] A few minutes farther into the interview, Ritter stated that this format was what she was familiar with. “That’s probably…that probably comes from me being an actress, too. Like having a strong scene—gettin’ in, gettin’ out.”[iii]
I strongly recommend the two video interviews referenced in this section for anyone interested in understanding Ritter’s mindset writing Bonfire. She is a charming interviewee. Her answers were delivered in her usual bubbly, bouncy and happy way.
With Bonfire, just as with my previous post, I listened to the audiobook version of Bonfire after I finished reading it. In this case, less than a week separated my reading and my listening. And, just as in my previous post, I greatly appreciated this process. It enhanced my enjoyment of this tale and aided my review.
One of the strengths of audiobooks I most value is the entirely different perspective provided. Reading a book depends on the sense of sight; while listening to an audiobook depends on the sense of hearing. Different parts of the brain are stimulated. Thus, an entirely different experience is had.
Coupled with this eye-versus-ear sensory difference, a good narrator can illuminate things that the reader’s internal voice may have glossed over. A talented audiobook narrator does much more than just read the written word. A robot could do that. A good narrator breathes life into the tale . . . into the author’s words—literally. For example, the narrator of Bonfire, Karissa Vacker does exactly this, bringing a new depth to the experience of enjoying the novel.
In preparing to narrate a typical novel, Vacker expends a great deal of effort and energy in the creation of each character’s unique voice. In this case however, according to Vacker:
While I did this work to some extent with BONFIRE, many of the characters jumped off the page with such clarity that I could see and hear them right away. This was especially true with Abby, the protagonist. She has so much grit. It was a treat to voice her.[iv]
For me, it was as much a pleasure to listen to Vacker’s narration of Bonfire as reading Ritter’s words were. The various characters, the emotional drama, and most of all, Vacker’s rendering of Abby were spot on.
Bonfire is a fast-paced and powerful novel that reveals how the past, written by the victors, (or by those left alive) can be used to mask a dark deed committed in the light of a bonfire. The reader quickly comes to understand that this is indeed a dark tale, when industrial chemical pollution is not the worst crime that is committed.
Ritter, Krysten. Bonfire: A Novel (Hardcover), Crown Archetype: New York, 2017.
Build Series. “Krysten Ritter Speaks On Her Novel, "Bonfire".” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube. 8 November 2017. Web. 17 April 2018.
Penguin Random House. “Krysten Ritter spotlight (full panel) - BookCon 2017.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube. 7 June 2017. Web. 17 April 2018.
Ritter, Krysten. Bonfire. Narrated by Karissa Vacker, Random House Audio, 2017. Audiobook. Digital Download.
Barsanti, Sam. “Krysten Ritter is writing her first novel.” The A.V. Club. Onion, Inc., 16 February 2017. Web. 13 May 2018.
Jackson, Frannie. “Krysten Ritter Talks Bonfire, Her Debut Novel Starring a Protagonist to Rival Jessica Jones.” Paste Magazine. Paste Media Group, 7 November 2017. Web. 10 May 2018.
Marie, Alyssa. “Bonfire by Krysten Ritter: A Book Review.” A Reader’s Journey. 10 December 2017. Web. 8 May 2018.
McLevy, Alex. “Jessica Jones’ Krysten Ritter wrote a surprisingly moving legal thriller.” The A.V. Club. Onion, Inc., 28 November 2017. Web. 13 May 2018.
Tang, Estelle. “Krysten Ritter Wants More Complicated, Imperfect, Not-Always-Pretty Characters.” Elle. Hearst Digital Media, 17 November 2017. Web. 10 May 2018.
Thompson, Eliza. “Krysten Ritter on Her New Novel and Why Women Like "Messy" Characters.” Cosmopolitan. Hearst Digital Media, 7 November 2017. Web. 13 May 2018.
Vacker, Karissa. “This girl is on fire! Karissa Vacker on narrating the “triumphant fiction debut” by actress Krysten Ritter.” Blog. Penguin Random House Audio Publishing, 3 October 2017. Web. 13 May 2018.
Wikipedia contributors. "Krysten Ritter." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 April 2018. Web. 09 May 2018.
[i] All transcriptions were executed by me.
[ii] At the 15 minute 20 second mark. All transcriptions were executed by me.
[iii] At the 24 minute 50 second mark. All transcriptions were executed by me.
[iv] Vacker, Karissa. “This girl is on fire! Karissa Vacker on narrating the “triumphant fiction debut” by actress Krysten Ritter.” 3 October 2017.