Review: Toad by Katherine Dunn

This one makes me sad . . . It's due out today if you want to see how it works for you.

Toad by Katherine Dunn

Released November 1, 2022

Source: Received for Review Consideration

Dark Fiction  |  Goodreads  | Bookshop

A previously unpublished novel of the reflections of a deeply scarred and reclusive woman, from the cult icon Katherine Dunn, the author of Geek Love.

Sally Gunnar has been in love, has been mad, has been an agent of destruction, has been spurned; and now she has retreated from the world. She lives in isolation in her small house, where her only companions are a vase of goldfish, a garden toad, and the door-to-door salesman who sells her cleaning supplies once a month. From her comfortable perch, she broods over her deepest regrets: her wayward, weed-hazy college days; her blighted romance with a scornful poet; a tragically comic accident involving a paper cutter; a suicide attempt; and her decision to ultimately relinquish a conventional life.

Colorful, crass, and profound, Toad is Katherine Dunn’s ode to her time as a student at Reed College, filled with the same keen observations, taboo-shirking verve, and singular characters that made Geek Love a cult classic. Through the perceptive Sally, a fish out of water among a cadre of eccentric, privileged young people, we meet Sam, an unwashed collector of other people’s stories; Carlotta, a free spirit who nevertheless fails to escape the deception of marriage; and Rennel, a shallow, self-obsessed philosophy student. With sly self-deprecation and mordant wit, Sally recounts their misadventures, up to the tragedy that tore them apart.

Through it all, Toad demonstrates Dunn’s genius for black humor and irony, her ecstatic celebration of the grotesque. Daring and bizarre, Toad is a brilliant precursor to the book that would make Dunn a misfit hero—even fifty-some years after it was written, it’s a refreshing take on the lives of young outsiders treading the delicate lines between isolation and freedom, love and insanity, hatred and friendship.

My 2 Cents for Free!

I was both nervous and excited to be blessed with an ARC for Toad (thank you kind publisher). Excited because Dunn's GEEK LOVE is a book I consider a masterpiece and one I reread every few years that manages to have the same impact each time I read it. Nervous because I feared my undying love for Geek Love might make anything else pale in comparison and perhaps that is a bit of what happened to me here because I had a struggle.

I wanted to adore and love this book and give it all five stars but pretending to do so wouldn't be honest because there were several points in this story where I nearly gave it up because it was either making me feel depressed or I'd catch myself tuning out. Before someone with all the smarts comes here and yells at me and says "Well, you shouldn't have expected another story just like Geek Love, all book babies are different" I'm here to stress that I didn't. I knew going in and reading the blurb that this book was a different story entirely but I will admit that I was expecting a story whose characters would captivate me even if I hated them and that just didn't happen here. There was no emotional connection just a feeling of going along with the words and a strong feeling of "meh, let's get through this". There are some beautiful passages and painful insights here, don't get me wrong, but ultimately this book and me? We did not mesh and I'll be sad about that for a long while.

Toad is about an older woman named Sally who lives a quiet and solitary existence and who, as the story soon reveals, is deeply depressed. Sally spends the majority of the book recounting tales of her college years spent with a small group of misfit friends. It's all coated with a layer of grime and filth and ick which is FINE (I don't mind that stuff usually) but it's also told through the lens of a deeply depressed, bitter and jealous woman filled with self-loathing who quite honestly is terrible and thoughtlessly says cruel things to her friends. This brings me to the drabness of the story. The friends barely react when something cruel is said. It can be interesting to read about conflict but they just soak it in and suck it up or don't seem to care enough to get upset. It isn't until nearly the end of the book that some of this behavior (which bugged me throughout) is addressed in a small way. There's little joy or humor and sometimes it felt very monotonous and like it wasn't ever going to go anywhere (and now that I'm done, I'm not completely sure that it ever did). Books don't often throw me into a funk but something about this one did and I nearly quit at about the 80% mark. I ended up pushing through because I felt obligated due to receiving an ARC that I requested but I do have some regrets about ignoring my gut.

There are many reviewers who enjoyed this much more than I did and who are mentioning the depression but there are many other things here that some readers may want a little heads up about before wading in unaware. You can see them here if you would like to know about upsetting things before jumping in. Also, none of these events are the reason for my 2-star review, I can handle tough content. It simply didn't work for me here because I never felt emotionally invested in any of it. That's the difference.

In the end, this book made me feel very gloomy and blah but not in any kind of cathartic or emotionally devastating way but your experience may be different.


  1. Some books are just like that, but it's tough when it's a book you really want to like or an author that's moved you before. Sorry this one was disappointing.

  2. I'm sorry this one didn't work out. :(

  3. OMG we had a similar reaction but through a different lens. I did not read Geek Love yet, so it definitely wasn't influencing my experience of this one. here's my review in case you wanted to see how much I sympathize with you:

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your review. It looks like we shared a similar reading experience. I was so excited to read this but sometimes they just don't work out. I wish we both could've loved it so much more.

  4. I;m sorry this one wasn't better for you.

    1. It was a bummer but I'm happy to see some people enjoying it.


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