Good Girls Lie
Tear Me Apart by J. T. Ellison was one of my favorite suspense novels of last year, so naturally I was eager to review her 2019 offering, Good Girls Lie. While it did not quite match the brilliance of the first book, it is still a riveting read.
Ash Carlisle is a Goode girl. The recipient of a scholarship to the elusive, all female preparatory The Goode School in the small, picturesque town of Marchburg, Virginia, she has now joined an elite group of young ladies who call this elegant Silent Ivy their home. Catering to the daughters of the wealthy and powerful, The Goode School offers an intense, competitive education, that along with their stellar pedigrees, assures their graduates attend Ivy League colleges and become the movers and shakers of the industrial and political world. A diploma from this institution comes with a guarantee of success.
But Ash is not their typical student. Shy, with a tragic history, she has changed her name and left her home in Oxford, England to begin again. Her first encounters at the school do not go well. Becca Curtis, the reigning Queen Bee of the school, who is president of all the clubs and groups that matter and has a strong clique of girls who back her reign of terror, takes an instant dislike to Ash, calling her a “mad Brit” before classes have even begun. She implies Ash won’t be able to handle the tough curriculum and will commit suicide before the year is out. Ash’s recital for Muriel Grassley, the music teacher, ends in disaster. She’s not off to a stellar start.
But these hiccups will not be the only tragedies she faces. Everyone has secrets at The Goode School. Everyone lies to protect their privacy. Some are even willing to kill in order to do so.
This is a subtle, layered mystery which hinges around a secret that is alluded to but not spelled out until almost the end of the tale. My review will not contain particulars because I don’t want to spoil the winding, macabre, delicious ride Ms. Ellison takes us on to get there.
The author does an excellent job of depicting what most of us would expect from an elite all-girls school. There is a large degree of cattiness, an even larger degree of stress, and friendships and love bloom amidst this tense hormonal atmosphere. Anyone who has ever been to a secondary school will recognize that beneath the glamorous, gentrified facade of this one are the same cliques, challenges and concerns that all teens face. Sadly, recent years have taught us that this atmosphere can also lead to death and murder, which, of course, happens here. Within the first few months of the term, one of the girls jumps (or is she pushed?) from the bell tower. Of course she had secrets. Of course the discovery of those secrets has a domino effect; everything learned about the dead girl reveals something about a living person, something others would much rather keep hidden.
Most of the story is told from the points of view of Ash and Ford (the dean of the school), but we also see certain events from other perspectives. Using the currently popular trope of the unreliable narrator, the author makes it clear from the start that everyone is hiding something. Or lying. The voices are all vivid and compelling and finding out whatever elusive secret(s) is/are being hidden is addictive, and kept me turning the pages. My primary questions surrounded our primary narrator, Ash. Is she an innocent victim of everything that is happening? A pawn of a more powerful player? Or a manipulative witch who has perfected the art of appearing innocent and vulnerable?
That ambiguity kept me from liking Ash or any of the characters, really, because all of their actions seemed to have dual explanations. A good example of this is what happens at the piano recital. There is a claim that everything that occurs is a tragic accident, but oddly, that tragic ‘accident’ worked to the benefit of the person who caused it. I didn’t trust that it really was a mistake, which kept me from liking and trusting the person behind it. Moreover, most of the characters had some genuinely nasty characteristics which obliterated any sympathy I might have felt for their circumstances. A teen in trouble turns out to be a snoop, a liar and a mean girl who had created a great deal of hassle for another student. One girl is clearly a psychopath whose narcissism leads her to kill to solve her problems. Yet another, who has family issues that would typically lead me to feel some empathy for her, was so cruel and controlling with her classmates that I couldn’t feel much pity for her. The love affair between two of the girls came after one of them had been so cold and condescending to the other that I couldn’t really wish for an HEA for them. Or even an HFN.
Most psychological thrillers are a little bit over the top and this story is no exception. The big reveal towards the end, where our biggest villain is introduced, isn’t completely impossible, but I would put it at the high end of improbable. It worked, if just barely, because of the nature of the tale. The author does a nice job of laying the groundwork for this particular twist so that it’s as believable as it can be when it arrives.
Like many of today’s psychological thrillers, Good Girls Lie explores the darkest parts of the human spirit. There are no innocent victims here. Just one long litany of damaged souls, which made it one of the darkest mysteries I’ve read in some time, and makes it a near perfect novel for someone looking for a grim, seductive, twisty story that will keep you reading into the wee hours of the morning.