Hex, by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Nell Barber wants two things and she can’t have either of them. The first thing she wants—to create antitoxins that start working immediately—is taken away when a fellow graduate student dies in the lab. The second thing is even more elusive. Nell wants Joan, her post-graduate advisor. From early on, Hex, by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, is a study of people who can’t have what they want. I defy anyone to read it without having the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on a loop in their head.

Nell is an odd duck. She says weird things. She only eats tortellini and Greek yoghurt and frozen veg. She doesn’t have a bed and she doesn’t talk to her family back in Kansas. And, of course, she is obsessed with Joan and botanical poisons. Even being expelled when one of her lab partners accidentally poisons herself with thallium doesn’t put Nell off of her desire to create antitoxins. She is so not put off that she steals castor beans and monkshood seeds to try and propagate them in her bare-bones apartment. She also can’t stop hanging around Joan, even though she’s not supposed to be on campus.

Hex follows Nell around Columbia University and its environs as she narrates her misadventures and thoughts to “you” (Joan). Everything that crosses Nell’s cortex ends up on the page. After dozens of small chapters in Nell’s head, I’m not sure what I think of her. On the one hand, I can at least understand her interest in toxins and antitoxins. So many of the plants that Nell wants to study can, in small doses, serve as medicines. It’s all a matter of dosage. But I have less sympathy for Nell’s obsession with Joan. Joan never indicates that she will ever be anything more than Nell’s advisor. And yet, Nell thinks that if Joan ever turns to Nell, Nell will suddenly become a complete, functional adult. The older I get, the more I realize that you can’t rely on others to make you happy and fulfilled; no one is that perfect. Hex reinforced this idea for me because all of the characters in this book are seriously lacking in self-awareness of their flaws and strengths. Consequently, almost everyone in this book is miserable.

I am so puzzled about how I feel about Hex that I’m not sure who might like this book. It’s excellently written. My problem is that the characters are such hot messes and I think the ending is too ambiguous for most readers. That said, there are readers who like to thorny psychological stories of quirky characters. If you are in that group, grab Hex. If you prefer your characters to make more good choices than bad, Hex might not be for you.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s