Prediction time: Lauren Frankel will become a popular, successful author of psychological thrillers. And when she does, this will be one of those obscure first novels that only hardcore fans read.
Rebecca is a naïve and trusting 30-something who is raising her best friend’s daughter alone. Callie is a popular 13-year-old who is accused of bullying at school, at which point Rebecca’s world begins to fall apart. Little does she know that Callie’s already has.
This is a fast-paced novel with a fair amount of suspense; I found the plot compelling and read through the book quickly. On the other hand, the plot is a bit predictable. Telling the story out of chronological order gives readers new insight on past events, but also results in a couple of clumsy plot points. The ending is satisfying in some ways, but also perhaps too pat; it feels as if the author was in league with one of the characters, manipulating events in unlikely ways to create maximum impact.(show spoiler)
The characters – while unlikely to stand out in my memory – are believable. Frankel seems familiar with teenage slang without overdoing it, and the teens’ online communications read as realistic. As do Rebecca’s and Callie’s views of one another; the teenage years are a time of misunderstandings and false fronts and annoyance with one’s parents (or guardian, in this case), and Frankel captures that dynamic from both sides without turning it into a cliché. Callie’s mean-girl friends are on the stereotypical side. On the other hand, other key friendships between women and girls are more complex: are the characters close friends, or is there romantic love there too? Or is the line between the two as clear as many people assume? Frankel does not succumb to the need to pin down anyone's sexuality, or insert gratuitous romantic subplots, which I appreciate.
Meanwhile, this is a very earnest novel about bullying, and many reviewers who have or teach children have found the depiction of online harassment enlightening. It is certainly timely (the day after I finished this book, NPR ran a story about how our ubiquitous mobile devices mean that kids nowadays can’t ever escape their peers, which we certainly see here). But it devolves into a bit of a Public Service Announcement in the end, and beyond the use of technology, the depiction of bullying is nothing new. The book tries to cover why kids bully, but doesn’t get much further than “some feel pressured into it by their peers” – who knows what motivates the peers doing the pressuring.
Though it covers teenage issues, and the writing is as clean and unremarkable as you would expect from a plot-driven novel, I don’t consider this YA and suspect that it will appeal primarily to adult readers who can relate to the mother figure suddenly out of her depth. I enjoyed reading it, but it feels like a talented writer’s first attempt at a psychological thriller. No doubt her next will be better.