The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Camille Preaker, describes herself as “trash from money”—the least-favorite daughter of the wealthy, cruel, controlling Adora Crellin. Camille has wrestled all her life with feelings of being ugly, unloved, and unwanted. She turned to self-harm at an early age, turning her obsession with language and the desire to control it into a way of marking herself. Camille has covered her entire body in words made of scars—the words are alternatingly feminine (“cupcake,” “dumpling,” “cherry,” “petticoat”) and violent or self-loathing (“wicked,” “duplicitous,” “vanish”). During her childhood, she was forced to watch helplessly as her sister Mariandescended into illness and eventually death. Camille has made a life for herself in St.Louis as a mediocre journalist, though her self-hatred and alcoholism hold her back from professional success. When a murder and a disappearance in her hometown of Wind Gap bring her back home for the first time in years, Camille is forced to confront the demons from her past and bring to light horrible secrets about her sister’s death and her mother’s abuse. Camille ultimately realizes that her mother was responsible for Marian’s death due to Munchausen by Proxy syndrome, a psychological disorder in which an individual (usually a mother) seeks to gain sympathy and attention by creating illness in another (usually a child). Camille believes that not only was her mother poisoning Marian, but is now too poisoning Amma—and, possibly, hiding the fact that she killed both Ann Nash and Natalie Keene, whose deaths brought Camille back to Wind Gap in the first place. Conflicted, self-loathing, wry, brilliant, and obsessed with language and its capacity to harness the unclouded truth, Camille is in many ways an unlikable, unreliable, and difficult protagonist, and a shaded portrait of modern-day femininity in all its complications, contradictions, and unreasonable expectations.
"My demons are not remotely tackled. They're just mildly concussed."
"I am a cutter, you see. Also a snipper, a slicer, a carver, a jabber. I am a very special case. I have a purpose. My skin, you see, screams. It’s covered with words—cook, cupcake, kitty, curls—as if a knife-wielding first-grader learned to write on my flesh. I sometimes, but only sometimes, laugh. Getting out of the bath and seeing, out of the corner of my eye, down the side of a leg: babydoll. Pulling on a sweater and, in a flash of my wrist: harmful. Why these words? Thousands of hours of therapy have yielded a few ideas from the good doctors. They are often feminine, in a Dick and Jane, pink vs. puppy dog tails sort of way. Or they’re flat-out negative. Number of synonyms for anxious carved in my skin: eleven. The one thing I know for sure is that at the time, it was crucial to see these letters on me, and not just see them, but feel them."