Title: The Smaller Evil
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Stephanie herself. Thank You!
Availability: Available Aug. 2nd
Summary: Sometimes the greater good requires the smaller evil.
17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.
Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.
The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.
And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.
As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.
Review: One of the reasons I love Stephanie Keuhn’s books is because they not only are they thrilling mysteries, but they also explore the very mystery of how our mind works in all it’s complicated beauty. The characters in her books are all struggling with living with mental illness, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, in their daily lives and struggling with all the usual angst that being a teenager brings. And, in Keuhn’s books, things are always never what they seem. And in her 4th novel, the reader is taken on an journey that has them just as confused as the main character Arman, which isn’t a bad thing, it just means the mystery was so well plotted that there is no way the reader can figure it out until the reveal. And I love that in a book.
As I mentioned, all of the protagonists in Keuhn’s books struggle with mental illness, Arman is her most touching yet. Arman suffers from severe anxiety, almost crippling at times, and feels that the Evolve retreat is what will heal him. He is on medication to help him with his anxiety, but it doesn’t really help him at all. The self-doubt, the self-loathing, the depression that he feels is so strong that he truly believes he does not have any worth to society, and this completely broke my heart for him. Having the novel be so close inside Arman’s head truly give a glimpse of what someone with severe anxiety and depression goes through, how their own thoughts hamper them from truly functioning sometimes. Arman would often try to pump himself up, but then his self-doubt, which was much stronger than his self-love, would take over and he would not trust any progress he made while at the retreat center. Compounding his low self-worth is that when Beau disappears, no one initially believes him which doesn’t help Arman’s state of mind in the slightest. However, this is also where Arman shows great strength and grows as a character. It is for his admiration of Beau that Arman doesn’t allow himself to let his self-doubt and anxiety take control. Arman knows, desires, to figure out what happened to Beau so he constantly fights with his own brain, his low self-esteem, and really fights to have his voice heard. His purpose drives him, and while it cannot cure him from his mental illness, it does allow to find a way to work with his illness.
As for the mystery surrounding Beau’s disappearance, as well as what is exactly going on at the retreat center, I can’t exactly say without giving spoilers, but I can say that at no point did I even come close to figuring it out. There were moments where I felt Arman’s frustration with being so left in the dark without any clues as to what was really going on in the story. Well, I take that back. There was tension between Beau and other leaders of the retreat center and I saw what that place was in danger of becoming, which added an extra level of concern for Arman because his spirit is in such a vulnerable position, that certain member of the retreat center could exploit if they wanted. Luckily, Beau and Arman’s mutual appreciation of each other was well known, so Arman was never in real danger.
Overall, I’m kind of in the middle with my thoughts on “The Smaller Evil”. It is a slow paced, quiet book that feels different from Keuhn’s previous books that had a lot of movement to it. This novel takes place primarily at the retreat center, and Keuhn does a great job of giving the reader a sense of place with her descriptions, but I feel that because the setting is in one place, the story just moves a bit too slowly. Also, my heart totally broke for Arman so I struggled with reading because I just wanted Arman to get the true help he needed and the retreat center was so not the place. It changes him, as all experiences do, but I wonder how much damage it did as well. This novel grabs your heart for Arman and doesn’t let go. It is a hard read at times because Keuhn does a great job with Arman’s neurosis and you truly, truly feel his pain. Because after all, that is what Keuhn excels at.
Recommendation: Get it soon.