unlike The Secret History, this book has some problems.
i was prepared for it, since so many of the reviews on here have been thumbs-down; people expecting a donna tartt or a gillian flynn and getting something altogether different. and i can’t say i hated it – it’s a very fast read, and it was a fine summer diversion, but it takes some frustrating shortcuts down build-the-suspense road.
nica baker is sixteen when she is murdered on the grounds of chandler academy, a prep school in hartford, connecticut. shortly thereafter, another student kills himself, leaving an incriminating suicide note and the case is officially closed. nica’s older sister grace; the shy and cautious opposite to her wild and popular whirlwind, was about to go off to college, but nica’s death has rocked her out of orbit and into grief allayed by the narcotizing arms of prescription medication. while her parents fight, drink, and separate, grace makes a lousy decision to attend nica’s ex’s fourth of july party dressed as nica, and wakes up the next day hungover, newly deflowered, and pregnant with no memory of the sexual act, but with a memory of seeing nica’s ghost.
she makes herself a deal – she will either find nica’s real killer before her first trimester elapses, and abort the baby, or if she fails, she will raise the baby as a sort of apology/tribute to nica’s memory.
so, off she goes, in all her 17-year-old investigative fervor, and she discovers all of nica’s secrets along with some of her own.
the other blurb on this is Megan Abbott meets Twin Peaks.
i’m not sure where the twin peaks comes into play here. except in the “pretty popular high school girl with sexual secrets gets murdered.” which is not a concept owned by david lynch. although i did like where grace points out the cliché of it all, especially her deflating of the “homecoming queen” mythos.
for the most part, it’s a fun and twisty thriller. some of it is predictable, some less so. it’s one of those “everyone’s got secrets, so everyone’s a suspect” stories, and i think anolik did a good job strewing suspicion all over the place. the problem is an over-reliance upon surfacing memories. grace spent the period following nica’s death abusing prescription medication, so she has very few clear memories of that hazy time and she has filled in the blanks with assumptions that are mostly inaccurate. and every time she uncovers a clue or a secret, she suddenly remembers an incident that supports or enhances this “new” knowledge. you can get away with that technique once in a book. use it more than that and it starts feeling contrived. (see blair’s review for a better version of what i have just said – of how Grace seems to experience memories like other people experience seizures.)
so it’s things like that, and the fact that this doesn’t read at all like the voice of a seventeen-year-old (i had to keep reminding myself of the ages of most of the characters – it definitely read more college than high school), and the implausibilities in clue-gathering (how would grace have ascertained the romantic significance of nica’s tattoo on first sight?), and some stereotypes in the ethnic blue-collar characters, that made me less of a fan of the book.
however, there are some things that i thought were great, particularly the relationship between nica and her mother, a sally mann-ish photographer who has obsessively chronicled nica’s adolescence in all its tender fumblings and provocative adult posturings. and even though i’d guessed this particular reveal, the scene in the studio was fabulous. huge. generally, all the scenes centered around the family were great – the pressures, the grief, the awkwardness between grace and her father as even basic communication became impossible – it was all incredibly realistic and sad.
and then there’s the scene in which grace becomes pregnant, which seems to be the one that kills the book for many readers. and i completely understand – View Spoiler »it’s a really ballsy choice to make your heroine fall for her maybe-rapist. but this is one of those situations which is at once emotionally-charged and hot buttony, but also very very gray. and i think anolik handled it really well, honestly. grace has been an unreliable narrator throughout the entire book, and on the night in question, she was incredibly wasted, but still ambulatory and maybe didn’t seem as messed up as she was. and damon’s account of the evening does indicate that grace was responding willingly. considering the two of them were both completely in the throes of grief and the shock of “seeing” nica (who was usually intoxicated herself) was probably confusing to damon, i think we can safely say that his intent was never rape, however confused and amnesia-ridden grace was. i think it was written honestly rather than gratuitously, and i think she did a good job of addressing the manylayered complications. « Hide Spoiler
but overall, it’s a fine debut. it has some bumps, but it has strengths to balance them. i always enjoy boarding school murder mysteries, and this one was far from the worst i have read. i liked it, bumps and all.