in the vast churning sea of academic thrillers centered around the murder of a beautiful and magnetic young woman, what shocking twists does an author need to devise in order to stand out?
in this case, the answer is “none,” really.
in the rankings of Ruth Ware Books I Have Read, The It Girl is sandwiched alongside One by One in the “perfectly fine” territory between the great: The Turn of the Key, and the terrible: In a Dark, Dark Wood.
it’s a very familiar setup: a close-knit group of college students satellite around a beautiful, wealthy, selfish roman candle of a young woman, and after she gets murdered, everyone’s secrets are revealed.
here, many of those secrets don’t come out until a decade after april’s murder, when her former bestie/roommate/narrator hannah is married to april’s college-sweetheart will, when she is pregnant with his child, when john neville—the college porter hannah’s testimony implicated in april’s murder—dies in jail, when a reporter approaches hannah with information exonerating neville, when she becomes wracked with guilt over possibly ruining an innocent man’s life, wracked with anger over april’s unavenged death, and wracked with terror that a killer might still be on the loose. it’s a whole lot of wracking.
the story alternates between adult hannah—pregnant, living in scotland, and working in a bookshop, and her student days at oxford, when she met the larger-than-life april and was engulfed into her clustering clique: april, will, emily, hugh, and ryan.
april is…the way all aprils are in books like this:
There was something otherworldly about her—some indefinable quality Hannah could not put her finger on. She felt almost as if she had seen her somewhere before…or watched her in a film. She had that kind of beauty that hurt your eyes if you looked at her for too long, but made it hard to tear your gaze away. It was, Hannah realized, as if a different kind of light were shining on her than on the rest of the room.
but after her death, she became a symbol—a promising life cut short, reduced to tragedy in the media:
How dare they—the journalists, the public, the vultures who have picked over this case for years like they care, like they have a right to the truth just as much as Hannah does. They’ve stripped April of her identity, of her uniqueness, of everything that made her real and compelling and fascinating—they’ve reduced her to a cardboard cutout of a girl and a series of Instagram pictures. The perfect victim, in fact.
the ten-year-gap permits hannah enough emotional distance to revisit her past with different eyes, to consider that the creepy porter was maybe just creepy, and not necessarily a killer, and to perceive the cracks in april’s shine; see the way her vanity, her carelessness with other people’s feelings and her mischievous pranks may have driven someone to kill her—someone she considered a friend.
it does what thrillers do—a mad scramble of suspicion and doubt, red herrings, remembered details given new emphasis, etc etc, and it’s a compelling, if conventional, page-turner. i figured it out before the grand reveal, but i enjoyed the ride nonetheless.
honestly, the best parts for me were hannah’s working-in-the-bookstore bits, which were very relatable, both the comfort in feeling “safest surrounded by books,” and the joyful challenge of readers’ advisory work:
…an elderly lady, who comes in every Tuesday and buys a book, and then comes back the following Tuesday and tells Hannah how many marks out of ten she would award it. She has never, ever given ten. Hamnet got 8.75. This week Razorblade Tears got 9.2. The first Bridgerton novel got 7.7. Lord of the Flies got a surprising 4.1. Hannah finds it impossible to predict what will score high—some of her most confident recommendations bomb, but she lives in hope of finding something that will hit the magic jackpot.
i’ve read far too many campus thrillers in my life, and i will read many more before i die (knock wood), so this was more of a comfort-food read for me than a mind-blowing experience, but it’s a fun summertime thriller to escape from the real world, and i’m taking my comforts where i can these days.