Camille Preaker is an investigative journalist for the Daily Post, a mediocre Chicago newspaper. Although highly intelligent, her self-destructive personality holds her back in her career and prevents her from forming meaningful relationships. She drinks heavily and cuts herself, covering her body with scars that spell out words that are childish and feminine (“cherry,” “cupcake”) or abusive (“wicked,” “duplicitous”). She is the daughter of a wealthy family in Wind Gap, Missouri, but her privileged childhood was marred by the cruelty of her vicious mother, Adora, and the traumatic death of her little sister, Marian, after a long and painful illness. Camille is filled with self-loathing and will not allow any man to see her naked because of her scars from her cutting. She often appears to have a fragile hold on reality, occasionally experiencing vivid dreams and drug-induced hallucinations that make her question her sanity.
Amma Crellin is the thirteen-year-old daughter of Adora Crellin. She is Camille’s half-sister, though Camille does not know her well and initially fails to recognize her. Amma lives a double life, acting as Adora’s “little doll” at home, while running wild with her friends around the town. At home, she acts like a young child, wearing pretty dresses and often playing with a large and elaborate dollhouse (a scaled-down replica of the Crellin Mansion). While Camille dislikes or even hates Adora, Amma’s relationship with their mother is more complicated. She rebels against Adora by attending sex- and drug-fueled parties, yet also longs to emulate and be close to her—to the extent that she will even take the blue medicine Adora gives her, which makes her sick, as her mother is at her most affectionate when nursing her.
Adora Crellin is Camille’s abusive, overbearing, psychologically unbalanced mother. She was mistreated by her own mother as a child and has passed that abuse on to her daughters, along with many of her insecurities and nervous habits. Alongside Adora’s masochism is the arrogance of wealth. Her contempt for those around her and her self-image as a Southern belle both recall William Faulkner’s Emily Grierson in “A Rose for Emily.” Adora’s detachment from the rest of the world and the dysfunctional nature of her relationships with all her daughters become increasingly obvious as the novel progresses.
Alan Crellin is a minor character and a negligible presence. He is Adora’s weak, effeminate husband, whom Camille is embarrassed to acknowledge as a stepfather. He makes no effort to mitigate or curb Adora’s extreme behavior.
Richard Willis is a “hot shot” detective from Kansas City who is investigating the murders of Ann Nash and Natalie Keene. He and Camille agree to help each other and pool information from their respective investigations but, while Camille has personal connections in Wind Gap, Richard is a true outsider with a coldly professional view of the case, which he hopes could help him on the way to a substantial promotion. He and Camille begin a sexual relationship, though she will not allow him to see her naked because of her scars. This relationship ends abruptly when Camille sleeps with John Keene and Richard discovers them together in a motel room.
Bill Vickery is the sheriff or police chief in Wind Gap. He is a minor character and his principal trait is the suspicion, bordering on hostility, with which he treats outsiders. He is guarded in his treatment of Camille, even though she is originally from the town, but he particularly resents the presence of Richard Willis as an intruder and professional competitor
Frank Curry is Camille’s boss at the Daily Post. He realizes that she is unwilling to return to Wind Gap but pushes her to do so, as he generally tries to propel her forwards in her career, despite her self-destructive tendencies. He ends up as a father figure to Camille, one of the very few people on whom she can rely.
John Keene is the elder brother of Natalie Keene, one of the murder victims. His family is not originally from Wind Gap, having moved there a few years prior due to Natalie’s aggressive behavior, which culminated in her stabbing a classmate in the eye with scissors. John quickly becomes the favorite murder suspect of the Wind Gap gossips, and Camille hears them discussing his probable guilt. Later in the novel, when John is drunk, he begs Camille to believe in his innocence and she finds that she does. The two sleep together at a motel, and John becomes the first man ever to see Camille naked. He does not appear to be phased by her scars, and this makes Camille feel accepted.
Meredith Wheeler is John Keene’s girlfriend, who volunteers to talk to Camille because she is anxious to save John’s reputation. Meredith is a cheerleader and is obsessed with her public image. She is known in Wind Gap as “Little Miss Perfect” and is horrified at the idea that people will think she is dating a child-murderer.
Ann Nash was a nine-year-old girl who was killed in Wind Gap before the novel begins. She was found in the woods by the town with all her teeth removed. Ann’s parents are unwilling to talk to Camille, but she later finds out that Ann had a fierce temper and once bit Adora, who used to tutor her.
Natalie Keene was a ten-year-old girl whose disappearance, less than a year after the murder of Ann Nash, leads Frank Curry to send Camille to Wind Gap to investigate. Soon after Camille arrives, Natalie is found murdered, with all her teeth extracted. Camille discovers from John Keene, Natalie’s brother, that her sister had a history of violent behavior, including attacking a classmate with scissors and biting people. Like Ann, she was tutored in spelling by Adora Crellin.
Marian Crellin was Camille’s younger sister. Like Ann and Natalie, she died before the beginning of the novel, but no one suspects that she might have been murdered. She was a sickly child, who apparently died of a long illness. Seeing Marian sicken and die is a major cause of Camille’s trauma. Later, she discovers that a nurse who treated Marian believed that Adora was intentionally harming her.
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