Danika reviews Florida Woman by Deb Rogers

the cover of Florida Woman

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Jamie has always lived a bit of a bumpy life. Her dad left when she was young, and her mom took off with a new boyfriend not long afterwards. She and her brother weathered the foster care system together until he was arrested for dealing drugs. Since then, she’s been working minimum wages jobs with very few connections, just scraping by.

But one strange night changed her life forever, and not for the better. A combination of bad decisions and unlikely circumstances turned her into Twitter’s main character of the day: A “Florida Woman” headline. All she wants to do is put her head down, serve her time in community service, and wait for it to blow over.

In this worst time in her life, though, she’s stumbled on some luck: a lawyer who’s taking her on pro bono, and a sweet community service opportunity that seems more like voluntourism than something comparable to jail time. Her lawyer has arranged for her to volunteer for a macaque monkey sanctuary. She’ll have her room and board paid for, and she’ll serve out her time in the Florida jungle helping prepare the monkey’s food, clean up after them, and generally be helpful.

Jamie was fully expecting to spend time behind bars, so this is an incredible opportunity, even if she does have to wear an ankle monitor. When she arrives at the sanctuary, Atlas, she finds the three full-time staff members are a very close-knit group of women. They’re definitely hippie types, and they believe the monkeys have spiritual wisdom to share with them. Jamie can’t help but be envious of the way they move through life, and she yearns to belong in this community.

Meanwhile, interspersed with Jamie’s chapters are excerpts from the sanctuary’s website, which include ominous lines like “We are a supportive circle, but remember: circles are closed for safety and wholeness. You are either with us or against us. There is no other way.” Jamie sleeps in her own hut deep in the jungle, away from the other women. She swears she can hear the monkeys screaming at night, but she’s told she’s dreaming it or confusing it with other noises.

This is a story that has a creeping sense of unease, which pairs well with the oppressive, dizzying heat and humidity of Jamie’s surroundings. Atlas feels a little cult-like, but Jamie is completely bought in. She’s vulnerable on multiple levels, and she desperately wants to be part of this community who seem to accept her and value her, even knowing her embarrassing headlines. She devotes herself to them and Atlas, ignoring the red flag that pop up, and as readers, we’re just waiting for this house of cards to come down.

I feel like with slow burn suspense like this in a story, it can turn out a couple of ways. One is that you get exactly what you were anticipating the entire time, and it feels like they were just dragging out the few plot points they had. Or, as is the cast for this book, it can slowly keep gathering steam towards an explosion at the end. While this book start off fairly slow-moving, it is effective in building tension, and that is definitely paid off.

I will also say this has a sapphic main character, but it’s far from a romance.

I wasn’t sure exactly what genre this was going into it: horror? Litfic? Thriller? And to be honest, I’m still not sure by the end. I’d say thriller meets litfic would probably be the closest to accurate.

This was a compelling read, especially with the fascinating setting. And I was invested in Jamie, who is so hungry for connection that she’s willing to overlook a lot to find it. This is a thriller, so I recommend looking up content warnings, because some of them would be spoilers for specific reveals.

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