Book Review: The Last House Party
When I was in high school in the eighties, a rumor went around about a popular senior girl: that she’d gone to a party with the football team, gotten drunk, and had sex with all of them. What a scandal! I was a junior, so I never spoke to her directly, but I remember being equally impressed and horrified. I wondered if it was true, but I never wondered if it was rape. We didn’t have the vocabulary back then.
Today, I would never assume that a seventeen year-old girl would willingly engage in group sex. "Me Too" has given us a new lens to look back on these stories; girls are less likely to keep quiet about football teams and fraternities.
Kelly Simmons’s latest novel, The Last House Party, reminded me of that girl and those rumors. Taking place in 1983, it’s about a mother who finally learns what happened at a party in her home 10 years ago. Will her curiosity lead to the people she loves the most?
Lily Knight is the mother, and in 1973, she was fighting cancer. Her three teenage daughters took advantage of her illness to run wild. It’s the first thing we learn when we pick up the book, and for that reason, it was hard for me to feel sympathetic toward Jane, Penelope, and Faith. Eventually, the girls acknowledge that they were jerks (with a stronger word), but it takes a while to get there.
The book starts in 1983, and Faith, the youngest at twenty-two, has just announced her engagement. She wants to have the wedding at her parents’ lovely home in upper crust Chestnut Hill, a suburb of Philadelphia. This leads Lily to a cleaning frenzy that results in the discovery of compromising photos of Faith, and a class ring belonging to Jordy, a teenage boy who’d committed suicide. Jane tells Lily that Faith had had a crush on Jordy, and had been devastated by his death—please don’t bring it up to her.
It's not true. The two older sisters reveal that a drunken Faith had been taken advantage of during their last house party, in her own bedroom. The photos were proof. And Jordy’s death was no suicide. As the women try to keep their mother from finding out the truth or telling Faith (she has no memory of the event), Lily becomes friendly with the teenage boy who has just moved next door, who’s heard rumors about the parties that used to happen on the street.
The book is written in close third-person from Lily, Jane, and Penelope’s points of view. Ironically, Faith, the golden girl around whom the novel revolves, is not a point-of-view character, and seems like a minor character in her own life story. As the women deal with the ramifications of what happened ten years ago, they’re also forced to confront their own casual racism, sexism, and the excuses they’ve made for people in their social circle.
Amazon has categorized the book as historical fiction due to its 1980s time period (GULP for those of us who grew up then), but it really defies categorization. It has elements of mystery and thriller, but the relationships are truly what is front and central here. The interior monologues are crafted at a level I’ve rarely seen; the setting is meticulously described. The story almost seems secondary.
I did have one quibble; Simmons never really describes exactly what happened the night of the party. She leaves hints and clues, but they don’t quite add up. A Rashoman-style series of flashbacks might have served the story well.