It’s nearly impossible to read Baby Doll and not compare it to the 2010 novel, Room. They both tell the story of a young girl who is abducted, held prisoner, and routinely raped by her captor. Both young women also give birth to their rapist’s child and are forced to raise that child in the confines of the cramped prison created for them. Also like Room, the majority of Baby Doll takes place after the mother and child are rescued and focuses on how the abduction affected the families left behind and the struggles the victims face as they try to integrate into the real world. Though those are a lot of similarities, that’s where they end.
Room was adapted into a 2015 film of the same name starring Brie Larson as the captive young woman; a role for which she won the Best Actress Academy Award. If Baby Doll were adapted into a film, it probably won’t win any Academy Awards. Where Room sensitively explored the connection between mother and child under the most heinous of circumstances and the depression and guilt that follows after such an ordeal, Baby Doll seems to deliver one traumatic event after another simply to shock the reader.
When Lily Riser was 14, she was abducted by one of her teachers, Rick Hanson. For 8 years he kept her in the basement of a cabin he owned, raping her and breaking her. Then one night he slips ups and forgets to lock the basement door before heading home to his wife. He realizes his mistake partway home, but he’s so certain that he has successfully trained Lily to not even attempt to leave, much less test the door. But she does, and shows up on her mother’s doorstep with her 6-year-old daughter Sky, Rick’s child.
Once Rick is arrested, this part of the book moves along predictably: first he denies and tries to manipulate his wife into helping and believing him, he uses the media to do most of his dirty work, and then hatches a desperate plan to escape justice. But the more interesting aspects of Baby Doll were the ones that featured twists and turns for the sake of twists and turns, and the novel suffers for it. It all unfolds via four different POVs: Lily’s, her sister Abby’s, their mother Eve’s, and Rick’s.
Lily’s twin sister, Abby, never believed her sister was dead and now has to reconcile her return with the fact that she’s carrying the baby of Wes, the guy Lily loved when she went missing. She was already failing to connect with the pregnancy and Wes in a meaningful way — mostly due to guilt — and she’s ready to give it all up if it means she and Lily can resume the special bond they had years ago. This guilt leads Abby to do something extremely reckless.
There’s an interesting flip in the dynamics of Lily’s relationship with her mother Eve. Before the kidnapping, Eve was confident. She loses her husband to a heart attack while Lily is gone and begins an affair with the married sheriff working on Lily’s case. Once that ended, she takes up with random guys, something that Lily witnesses firsthand when she shows up that first night. Lily’s imprisonment forced her to grow up and hardened her. When the two are reunited, though Lily suffered the greatest over the past 8 years, she’s come out of it the strongest in many ways. This contrast was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book, but Eve wasn’t interesting enough to warrant her own POV chapters and the novel slowed down considerably during those parts. This is also true of Abby’s and Rick’s chapters due to the fact that Abby is an unlikable and unsympathetic character, and Rick is just a psychopath. None of his thoughts or feelings are anything we didn’t already assume of someone capable of such a crime.
Still, there is something about Baby Doll that kept me turning the pages; a quick read, I finished it in a day and a half. Mainly, I believe you’ll really keep going to see how it all ends, and, honestly, I didn’t see the end coming. It wasn’t quite the neat, happily-ever-after one might expect.