They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman
My rating: 3/5 cats
great title, great cover, okay book.
i’m always down to read about insular cliques in academic settings that end in murrrrrrderrrrr, so i’d been looking forward to this one for a while. however, i’m ALWAYS down for books about insular cliques in academic settings that end in murrrrrrderrrrr, which means i have read A LOT of books about insular cliques in academic settings that end in murrrrrrderrrrr, and when you read A LOT of the same kinda thing, the lit-version of the law of diminishing returns kicks in and unless there’s some next-level game-changing subgenre-transcendence going on between the covers, these same bones/different skin books become less and less likely to surprise or impress.
so, YMMV, depending on how many of these kinds of books you’ve consumed. me, i thought it was fine.
it takes place at a long island prep school three years after a freshman girl was murdered during one of the elaborate hazing rituals that have long been part of the school’s social fabric, designed to separate the golden from the platinum. eight pledges are nominated from each incoming class, and must endure tests of physical and psychological fortitude before they can become one of The Players—envied for their status, earning them the best table in the cafeteria, the answers to all the tests, as well as favoritism perks extending beyond high school’s small stakes, since players alum go on to become the 1% of…everything? college admissions, internships, business opportunities, etc—all roads paved by people who were once part of an elite group within an elite private school still bound by codes of loyalty and secrecy. it’s YA so i’ll overlook the statistical improbability of all of that.
anyway, back to murrrrrrderrrrr: players prospect shaila died in the evening’s chaos, her boyfriend graham confessed and was sent to richboy juvie, and life went on for her pals, who are now seniors in charge of selecting the next batch of players. but what if graham didn’t kill shaila?
the character types are pretty standard: sporty spice and bitchy spice and dauntless spice and scholarship spice etc along with a bunch of blandly interchangeable boys, except one is gay. for diversity. plus a young hot teacher, a bad boy playwright, and a lesbian. for diversity.
secrets, amateur sleuthing, and (mostly) white privilege ensues.
and i know I’M coming across a little bitchy spice about this, but just think of me as a big dumb puppy nipping playfully at a book that wasn’t all i’d hoped, but is perfectly fine. having been spoiled by some of YA’s edgier offerings, i found this one a little more Y than i typically dig. the whodunnit is pretty predictable, the fact that so many adults are invested in the game and complicit in the whole system is a little goofy—when a player is shunned, word spreads, and they are scorned not just by current high-schoolers but also grown folks who should have matured out of such pettiness, and surely some college deans would value actual academic merit over cheating cliques, regardless of what they themselves did in high school.
at the same time, where it could have been cool and original—the ruthlessness of teenhazing conducted by the scions of people whose tax brackets typically protect them from consequences—it went a little soft.
the “pops,” which are basically dares that the ’undies’ have to perform to become a player are…pretty tame, yet they cause disproportionate emotional distress in the prospective initiates. having to read aloud dialogue from a porno—not being filmed re-enacting, just reading the words while fully clothed, or having to make out with someone of the same sex, these lightweight challenges are pretty standard slumber party fare that shouldn’t cause tears or inspire feelings of scorching humiliation, and yet they do.
and yes—some of the pops are more intense than these, including the one that led to shaila’s death, but for the most part it’s silly stuff the achievement of which doesn’t seem commensurate with the supposed rewards of being a player.
there was a second opportunity to add some fresh spark here, but for all the emphasis and fuss made by the MC about how much harder the pops always are for girls than boys, and how even after they become players, the girls defer to their male counterparts, this supposedly big sexist misogyny conspiracy doesn’t amount to much—no girls are being made to pull any trains or sext politicians—except for the final, personalized challenge, everygender’s tasked with doing the same vanilla stuff. the one time something SVU-worthy could have occurred, the perpetrator was so quickly and easily diverted that the whole scene was like three sentences.
still, it was a good sickbed book, and now i’m recovered, and there’s no proof this book didn’t cure me.
BUT MY MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION ABOUT THIS BOOK:
where are these schools whose lunchrooms feature giant bowls of raw cookie dough?? and do they need substitute teachers? because—although presumably these students are plucking off pieces with their fingies, so if this is a thing that exists, they all have covid now—but if you’re serving raw cookie dough at lunch, i’m first in line, before it gets tainted. and i’m not pinching off some ladylike portion—that cookie dough is my lunch, period.
references available on request.
perfect for those ‘have a fever? read a book!’ times.
review to come when i recover from koffing and moaning.
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