“There you are.”
okay, i have now officially read this book twice – once the way it was intended, with its reverse-countdown of days and events, and once backwards, following the plot chronologically.
which begs the question: which one is better?
my friend connor is very critical of nonlinear chronologies (in movies, anyway – he’s no booknerd). his complaint about them, and it’s absolutely a valid one, is that many times this device is just a candy-coated distraction adding the illusion of interest to what would be an unremarkable story if it were told chronologically. if the gimmick is the only appeal, there’s no reason to watch it a second time, when you know where all the puzzle pieces go.*
so, i can feel you wondering – what about this one? get to the point already jeeeez.
honestly, i think in this case, the gimmick is almost an obstacle.
it’s a great hook, don’t get me wrong, and 87% of the people who read this book are going to be reading it for that reason alone – to see if she can pull it off, and it certainly distinguishes itself from the 9 million other “girl” psych suspense books being published on a weekly basis these days.
and it’s fun, it really is – you get your bookends of ‘before’ and ‘after’ sandwiched around this fifteen-day reverse-chronology where conclusions are reached that have no significance to the reader until their import is made apparent further down the road. and that imbalance is alluring, it keeps you turning those pages, digging deeper until you reach the foundation.
and maybe i’m evaluating this with the boost of second-read clarity, and had i read it only chronologically, i would have dismissed it as just another ‘missing girl’ book, forgetting it immediately, but i definitely liked it better the second time. i think the gimmick made me squint too hard, thinking i should be scrutinizing every detail looking for clues which only served to complicate the straightforward and made me see some contradictions that i did not see reading it the second time. the structure is definitely funusual and forces the reader to engage in stimulating mental gymnastics, but some details get lost in the shuffle – unanswered questions that she was maybe hoping no one would notice? they’re mostly minor: who was in the woods that night nic smelled the cigarette? who was in the apartment across from tyler’s? why does daniel hit nic? why was so much made of the caverns when there was no real payoff in that direction? how is annaliese their “alibi” on the night corrine goes missing when everything she witnessed occurred when corrine was alive and well and standing right in front of her? do the police really need to be called every time a patient with dementia says something vaguely incriminating? how does corrine get from point a to point b and why on earth does…? who the hell would sleep all alone in a house with a broken lock in a town where girls keep going missing and everyone knows everything, including whose locks are broken? and small town or not, broken lock or not, how do you just leave the house without even closing the door? would someone really “reek” of alcohol after holding a sip in their mouth for a moment hours earlier and do breathalyzers not exist? how is nic alluding to something on “day one,” that she has not yet experienced? it’s a little sloppy, but considering how much of it does work, it’s no fun spending time poking holes in it.
even without the novelty of unconventional structure, there’s enough here to grab my attention: a tale of three small-town mean girls and the boys who circle them, until their charismatic queen bee corrine goes missing after (before?) a night in which many small things chain-react into one huge consequence, supplying the town with limitless gossip. ten years later, and nic, one of those girls (the medium-mean in the mean-girl spectrum), returns home to help her brother daniel prepare their childhood home for sale to afford their dementia-addled father’s care in an assisted living facility.
she’s engaged to a successful lawyer named everett, and is a school counselor at schmancy prep school in philly, where young damaged girls consider her a valuable confidante:
Maybe they knew I had seen darker things. That I would understand. Or perhaps they would sense that I am an excellent keeper of secrets..
however, once nic is back in cooley ridge, n.c., another girl (woman) goes missing – annaliese carter, the current girlfriend of nic’s former flame tyler, and then everything starts going sideways (or more precisely, backwards). nic’s father begins to talk about seeing the “missing girl,” the police get involved, and all the secrets kept for ten years are compromised as history repeats itself in a particularly rumor-fueled town.
When Corrine disappeared and we ran out of places to search, people to question, leads to track down, the only thing left for people was the talk.
About Corrine and Bailey and me. Reckless and drunk on life, never thinking of the consequences. How we passed around a bottle in the clearing outside the caverns and invited boys inside. How we lifted candy bars from the convenience store (on a dare, always on a dare) and didn’t respect property or authority. How we had no boundaries with each other, a tangle of limbs and hair and sun-kissed skin.
ah, corrine… such a deliciously twisted mean girl. she’s the kind of mean girl who will help you deal with your mother’s death through the healing power of arson:
“Want to watch something burn?”
and nic, full of grief and adolescent helplessness, absolutely wants to watch something burn. something like an abandoned barn:
She let me strike the match, and she held my hand as we watched it burn to the ground. We stood too close to it, so close we could feel each time a piece of wood caught, sparked, ignited.
corrine is a ferocious bundle of manipulation and cruelty – always testing the limits of people’s devotion to her, subjecting them to impromptu truth-or-dares, in which the other girls quickly learn to always choose “dare.”
Nobody would ever love you so fiercely, so meanly, so thoroughly. And the parts of you that you wanted to keep hidden – she loved these most of all.
everett is horrified by nic’s stories of her relationship with corrine, which he quite rightly sees as unhealthy.
Everett had never been a teenage girl – maybe there was some equivalent in the adolescent male, something that simmers under the surface of a friendship like that. But the simple truth was that when a girl like Corrine loves you, you don’t ask why. You just hope it doesn’t change.
but then everett is an outsider; not only has he never been a teenage girl, but he’s not “from here,” living a life of privilege and protection, too refined to relate to nic’s experiences, too sensitive to look into the darkness:
“I don’t know if i have the stomach for my job…I do my job well, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes there’s a moment. A moment when you realize the person you’re defending is guilty. And you can never go back…I’m a better lawyer when I don’t know.”
which does not bode well for the future of their relationship. enter love triangle! as a reader, i’m usually bored by the romantic bits of books, but this one was particularly irritating. it did not read like the behavior of mature adults, it was like a child playing with dolls in some blue blood v blue collar showdown: this one is rich but this one is infatuated, this one’s your past and this one’s your future, this one knows everything about you and this one knows only the good stuff and now is kissytime!
but apart from that – it’s a good thriller. the reverse-timeline keeps you on your toes, and the inclusion of so many scenes detailing the events surrounding corrine’s disappearance ten years previous adds another layer of unfolding-mystery to the mix, as well as nic’s sleep and food-deprivation contributing potentially hallucinatory unreliability to her perspective. the pacing is tight and breathless, helped along by all the imagery of things spinning and being blurry and always in motion, mirroring the frenetic whirlwinds characterizing the adolescent experience:
Boys and their uncontrollable passion, impulsive and coiled to snap. Girls, with the uncontrollable yearning for something intangible. Something else.
but that “coiled to snap” brings up another problem i had – the depiction of (mostly male) violence here is a little disturbing, particularly in light of this statement from our heroine:
It happens like this – men losing themselves in moments of passion. We drive them to it. It’s not their fault.
pretty much every man in the book, even milquetoast everett, is shown to be overwhelmed by their anger at a woman at some point, demonstrating their rage by punching, bruising, slamming cupboards, throwing plates, pushing people down stairs, slamming fists into tables… it’s off-putting, this caveman bullshit, especially in light of nic’s bullshit statement absolving them from blame. it reminded me of how horrible some of those old vintage harlequins were, like this one where you read it and you can’t even imagine how a character could forgive this behavior in a love interest, but this “every boy is violent and it’s all our fault” attitude is much ickier to encounter in a contemporary novel written by a woman.
so, despite my irritants, this is a 3.5 i have rounded up to 4.
* paraphrased like crazy