Alice Hill has a tragic past she would like to forget. At age 14 a set of twins she befriended tried to kill her in the name of Mister Tender, a character from a graphic novel series written by Alice's own father. After this tragedy, her family breaks up, and she moves with her mother and brother from the UK to Massachusetts. As an adult, Alice is a coffee shop owner and recovering heroin addict trying to maintain a normal life, but that becomes difficult when she receives messages and illustrations in the mail from her dead father. Is she actually getting paternal advice from beyond the grave? Or is someone watching her? Then a man Alice has never seen before keeps showing up around town, demanding that he speak with her, saying he knows her ex (the one she committed theft with when she was still doing heroin.) Is this the person who is following her? Or maybe she needs to take the advice of her late father, which is to be careful who you trust.
Mister Tender's Girl was inspired by the stabbing and attempted murder of Peyton Leutner. Two twelve-year-old girls lured Peyton to a public park restroom and stabbed her, leaving her for dead. Reportedly, the perpetrators believed that they were making a sacrifice to Slender Man, a character from a creepy pasta who lures children into the woods, never to be seen again. While the true story is highly compelling in its own right, Carter Wilson shifts the narrative slightly and turns this portion of the plot into Alice's back story. Her attack is the climax of her previous life, sending her across an ocean and into a life that is totally different than the one she knows in England; it is the trauma that drives her future decisions, for better or for worse.
This book is truly horrifying. It is violent, and is written so brilliantly that you truly feel in suspense as a reader. Mister Tender's Girl is the definition of a thrill ride: Wilson slowly drags the reader up to the top of that inevitable roller coaster drop, and then lets you fall into horror, deceit, and even humor at times. While I listened to the audiobook version I could feel myself physically tense, only to find relief in the resolution of that tension. There was even an instance where I laughed almost too hard, only because the sense of pressure leading to that point was so great.
Part of the fun of reading Mister Tender's Girl is in determining whether or not there is a supernatural element to the story. Wilson establishes that the world of the paranormal is possible in this book's universe in the same way that the author of a cozy mystery might: he decided to make Alice the owner of a coffee shop that just happens to have the reputation of being haunted by a benevolent ghost. In addition, the plot is set around Halloween, you know, when the veil between the living and the dead becomes thinner so ghosts, goblins, and ghouls can roam the streets along with human trick-or-treaters. This immerses the reader into the possibility that ghosts are afoot in an almost warm and fuzzy way.
The good news is that the ghostly feelings in this book are not all Casper-like in nature. Another way that Wilson instills the sense of the paranormal is by juxtaposing it with characters who are mentally ill. Alice is struggling with PTSD (who wouldn't, after nearly being stabbed to death?), as well as recovering from a serious heroin addiction. She also happens to have a 24-year-old brother with an undiagnosable mental illness, who must be supervised by their mother. From the beginning of the book, the relationships in this family reminded me of the family dynamic in Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (without giving too much of a spoiler, that assessment was on point, but Wilson takes the idea so much further in this book.) The decision to characterize Alice and her family this way allows for the reader to accept that Alice is an unreliable narrator, and to reinforce the idea that Alice shouldn't trust anyone, especially not the people closest to her.
I found this book un-put-downable, or rather, I couldn't stop listening to it. The essence of this book reminds me of Flynn's Sharp Objects, as well as Riley Sager's Final Girls. It would be nice if Wilson would agree to do a graphic novel version of this book, because a graphic novel series is a major part of the plot.