When I seek lonely women in literature, I usually find them flocked by too many perfectly un-fun creeps. You know what I mean: those lonely boys who trail behind the lonely women to make it clear that true love with an equally lonely person is the cure for all ills. It usually works out so that a quirky, lonely woman finds her complementary quirky dude partner and a happy ending ensues. Alcy Leyva’s novel And Then There Were Crows succeeds at giving us a very weird, super isolated, lonely woman protagonist whose story is not sodden with a shoehorned love interest. Instead, Leyva’s lonely woman protagonist fulfills the role of the antisocial slayer who mostly just needs to make friends.
Crows stars an agoraphobic Queens native named Amanda Grey whose combination of financial instability, neuroses, and family issues lead her to seek a Craigslist roommate. The search quickly goes awry: “When she inadvertently rents a room to a demon, Grey goes from a woman concentrated on her own personal demons to the woman responsible for recapturing the six Shades from Hell she’s unleashed upon the city.” Grey’s efforts to recapture all of the pesky Shades obligates her to go outside, talk to strangers, and assemble a ragtag group of friends (including a very shifty seraphim).
Leyva pits Grey’s agoraphobia against the Shades’ desire to dominate New York City. Grey prefers to hide in her apartment, avoiding everything she hates: “Staying indoors was perfect for me and I never complained, never thought I was missing out in life. I only came out when necessary … but every time it was like landing on an alien planet. People are weird, sick, creatures; mouth breathers.” Grey’s loneliness and total hermit status is as an addiction, a best friend, and a trap. She clings to solitude but feels deeply guilty when the Shades incite chaos and slaughter. As much as she longs to hide in her comfort zone, she also wants to clean up the mess she’s accidentally made. The text plays with this dichotomy between the safety of Grey’s apartment inside and the anxiety-inducing world outside.
New York also plays a part in the novel; even though Grey abhors the mouth-breathers of the world, she begrudgingly admits that she values the hell out of Queens and resents the encroaching gentrification. When she visits Brooklyn, she notes the borough’s “assimilation limbo” with disgust. She’s protective of her fellow New Yorkers and resentful of “the young hipsters” who have “no idea what a piping hot two dollar chop-cheese with extra onions does for a person’s soul.” What Grey values about Queens, her neighbors, and other ungentrified pockets of New York reflects the best facets of her own personality, too. She likes the ultra-casual, I-plainly-do-not-give-a-fuck-ness of the super in her building, or the eclectic indifference of the Polish couple who run a greasy burger joint across the street from her apartment. Clearly, Grey respects a willingness to be funny and weird. This respect for quirkiness explains why she devotes so much time digressing from her quest to explain the terrible “ramen pop” recipe she crafted while holed up in her apartment. Digressions aside, when Grey lovingly describes the crazy idiosyncrasies of her neighborhood, it urges the reader to care more about whether or not demons overtake New York.
Also, the whole business of protecting New York from pure evil could devolve into a depressing and torturous burden, but Leyva is willing to be funny about it all. The text respects hijinks—Grey, her wily seraphim, a good-natured neighbor who Just Wants to Help, the demon roommate, and Grey’s estranged sister all team up to vanquish the Shades in a series of very wacky plots. When Grey and her crew target a Shade who aspires to commandeer the local government, the novel twists into a Mission Impossible-meets-Scooby Doo ploy that involves a children’s programming host and a large bookstore full of riotous people. The whole thing is so wild that the seraphim refers to it as “the worst fucking plan I have ever heard in my life. And I’ve lived for several thousand centuries.”
As mentioned, the text notably does not shove a lonely boy love story down the reader’s throat, nor does it decide that a heavily romantic subplot will cure all of Grey’s neuroses. The book provides a slight romantic interest in the form of the caring neighbor, but Grey’s transformation from total recluse to Shade slayer prioritizes her increasing ability to relate to other people and challenge her social anxiety and agoraphobia. The book avoids using their chemistry to engineer a simple, happy resolution. The final chapter is not romantic, nor quite of this world—but despite some serious turns, Grey retains her ability to make fun of just about everything. Even after learning of a bruising and supernatural betrayal, she decides to laugh it off: “I figured that’s where I should start—just straight up laughing at the whole thing.”