The Good Sister
Technology has changed the way the people of the Western hemisphere talk. We text, we tweet, we post on social media. Many argue that this type of sharing has actually been the death of true communication. Others say it has never been easier to keep in touch. Whichever side of the argument people fall on, everyone seems to agree on one thing: You have to watch your step in the cyber world. Dangerous people can lurk online.
Jen and Thad Archer are devoted parents. They are also devout Catholics. Their devotion to God and family combine when it comes to education. They have sent their girls to parochial schools all through elementary and junior high. Now that it is time for eldest daughter Carley to head to high school there is no doubt in Jen’s mind where she should go. Jen went to Sacred Sisters Catholic girls’ school and loved it. Even though many of Carley’s friends are heading to public school Jen is determined to see her give Sacred Sisters a try. She is certain that Carley will thrive there, just as she did. But shy, plump, acne ridden Carley becomes the target of a vicious enemy who manages to turn the whole school against her. To add to the trauma, Carley’s best friend since preschool has found new friends in public school and severed the relationship with Carley. Feeling completely alone Carley turns to the internet for support.
Carley finds a community online at a website for kids who’ve been bullied. She also finds a new BFF in Angel, a girl who gives her advice about how to handle her tormentors. It is to Angel that Carley turns when her former best friend Nicki commits suicide. And it is to Angel that Carley turns when a popular senior at her school commits suicide less than a week after Nicki did. But there are things Carley doesn’t know about Angel. Mainly that Angel is very, very close. And getting closer all the time.
This novel combines old school vengeance with modern technology for a twist on just how little we actually know about the people we communicate with so openly online. It uses its subject matter to good effect, showing how people give details of their lives to total strangers via the internet that most would never just blab to casual acquaintances in real life. It also underlines the fact that people are often not whom they pretend to be on the computer: that a thirteen-year-old girl in a chat room could actually be a thirty-year-old psycho in real life.
Staub does a good job of showing how an intelligent girl can fall into this kind of trap in spite of trying to be cautious and careful in how she interacts online. Carley is a kind, studious young woman who hangs out only on websites that promise some security and that deal with subject matters that seem serious. Had the person trying to harm her not been extremely motivated, they wouldn’t have been able to penetrate her defenses. She also shows how a lack of physical communication, an unwillingness to be old fashioned and talks in person (or God forbid, on a landline) can allow the tech savvy to manipulate our information. That portion of the novel felt very well done to me. And the pacing here was excellent. Staub has struggled in the past with this a bit but the action moves along nicely in this one.
I liked the character building as well. Staub seems most in her element in building typical middle class families and she does a good job of that here. Jen is very sympathetic as the mother of two girls trying very hard to handle two differing personalities who manage to get into trouble at exactly the same time. I appreciated the small touches that let us see Jen as a full person – sexy high schooler, plump mom, terrific daughter. Meeting old friends and extended family, seeing just how comfortable Jen is in her environment and just how she fits into it really help to build a complete picture of her.
Carley and her bratty sister Emma are equally well drawn. Both of them are very typical, middle-class teen girls, totally self-absorbed and spoiled with a plethora of good things. Yet both of them manage to find trouble. For pretty and popular Emma there is the desire for the bad boy to notice her and help her fast track her way to adulthood. Emma is good at forging her own path but it is almost always the wrong path. For Carley, who is shy and a tad immature, her problems stem from an inability to set her own course. Complying with family and authority figures leaves her vulnerable to traps that trusting her own instincts would have avoided. Both girls learn to grow up – and draw a bit closer – as they face crisis.
But in spite of the well done plotting and characterization there were problems with the novel too. The biggest one is the over the top psycho killer, who is driven to vengeance by things that happened back when all the parents were in school. The character is completely crazy and apparently comes from a long line of psychotics. If we had been given a bit more background perhaps on just why the parents were such Looney Tunes or even why the character didn’t reach out to social services for help (this takes place in the 80s, social services were in place and would definitely have intervened in this situation) it might have been easier to believe. As it was, the villain was so over the top their cartoonish nature overshadowed the excellent work Staub had done in creating her other characters.
Another difficulty I had with the book is how similar the pattern of the plotting was to several of Staub’s other works. There always seems to be a psycho, there is always a last minute twist to that psycho and said psycho inevitably comes from a fairly twisted family. I enjoy the author’s novels but the predictably of her villains does, after a time, become eye roll inducing rather than a source of suspense. About fifty pages in I know who will live, who will die and who will do the killing and why. That leaves me with about three hundred pages of filler till I get to the payoff. Staub is a good enough writer to make that filler enjoyable but she can’t pull off making it suspenseful and that is sort of what a mystery novel is all about. For an infrequent reader of her books this won’t be a problem but for someone looking to follow an author through their body of work it can be a serious stumbling block.
I also questioned the plausibility of some of the crimes committed being gotten away with. One in particular, towards the end of the book, should have left the kind of forensic evidence that would have clued the police in to what was happening.
To recommend or not to recommend, that is the question. If you haven’t read the author before and enjoy suspense I would give this book a strong recommend. The author has a wonderful way of combining the ordinary with the macabre and reminding us we are all vulnerable to evil. For someone who has read Staub before be warned you won’t be receiving anything new here. Worth a read but it probably won’t knock your socks off. The author has used this bag of tricks before.