Book Review: Women and Children First by Alina Grabowski


Rating: 3.75⭐

Touching upon themes of social class and inequality, ambition, family, friendship, gender identity and sexuality, abuse, guilt and grief, I found Women and Children First by Alina Grabowski is an impressive debut novel.

“Your choices have to mean something, even if they mean something terrible.”

The tragic death of a local teenager at a house party sends shockwaves through the small (fictional) town of Nashquitten, Massachusetts.

Structured in ten chapters ( each from a different character’s perspective) in total, divided into five “pre” and five “post” Lucy’s death, this is a slow-moving yet immersive character-driven novel. Among the voices we here from are : a sixteen-year-old who went to school with Lucy and worked with her cousin and was in a romantic relationship with a teacher; a guidance counselor who tries to do right by her students only to have her concerns dismissed by the school principal who is unaware or rather chooses to ignore the possibility that her own daughter might have been abused by an authority figure; the president of the PTA who hides her daughter’s misdeeds; Lucy’s best friend who was away when the tragedy occurred; Lucy’s schoolmate who witnessed the tragedy and is haunted by the events of that night; a young woman from an affluent family in the community who is the housemate of the school’s guidance counselor; and her childhood friend who witnessed Lucy’s father’s grief on the night of Lucy’s death; and Lucy’s mother for whom Lucy’s death was a turning point in her life in more ways than she had anticipated. Of the ten voices, not all were close to Lucy. However, in a small town, you know people who know people – there is a sense of interconnectedness despite the apparent disconnect – less than six degrees of separation. Those who knew Lucy personally grapple with their loss on a personal level - Lucy’s mother, her teachers, her friends and her peers struggling with grief, guilt, and regret while those who know of her are either compelled to draw parallels and take stock of their own lives or choose to remain indifferent beyond a certain point. We do get to know these characters intimately – their ambitions, their personal struggles, and their secrets. The characters are flawed and thus realistic and though you might question their actions and their reactions, the author gives us enough insight into the characters to attempt to understand them.

The powerful prose and the emotional depth with which each of these characters is explored renders this an impactful read. I will admit that I found the “post” chapters more impactful than the preceding section, which felt a tad disjointed. It should be noted that though the narrative revolves around the death of Lucy Anderson, she does not feature as a main character – yes, we can attempt to create a portrait from the fragments provided through the limited perspectives of our narrators and piece together the events that led to the tragic events on that fateful night, but the focus of this novel is the impact of tragedy on certain individuals, and the community, from the perspectives of its female members – women and children.

What keeps me from giving this novel a higher rating is the fact that the ending felt abrupt and left me with quite a few unanswered questions. However, this is an impactful read and I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.

Many thanks to Zando for the digital review copy via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

“I used to think that everyone was on the same page, that we agreed being human meant taking care of one another. But now I understand that a lot of people—maybe most people—think that being human just means taking care of yourself and those you’ve already decided have value.”