“That familiar feeling of disconnectedness, the sense that people were mysterious to me in a way they weren’t to each other.”
That complex phrase reverberates throughout Lili Anolik‘s novel, becoming more significant for Chandler School student Grace Baker as she suffers the greatest tragedy of her life: the death of her younger sister, Nica. The go-to girl with a rebellious streak, Nica seems to have lived a life on the edge after deciding to give it another shot with Jamie Avory,
her boyfriend of two months. But there was also a mystery man, someone Nica was seeing just days before her death. Perhaps Jamie
discovered something and couldn’t handle it, so he decided to make her pay?
Not just a one-way arrangement, Anolik leads her embattled Grace through a terrifying and heartbreaking role reversal from the moment she discovers her sister’s zebra-striped Bic to waking up from a bad dream she can’t quite remember. Grace knows Nica is actually dead when she hears the police siren in the distance. Found by a sophomore in a graveyard at Endcott House, her body was punctured from a .22
bullet lodged deep in her left kidney. Because of the influence Chandler School wields in Hartford, Connecticut, the police are polite and deferential, while her mother and father
In the days following Nica’s death, Grace descends deep into an anxiety disorder. Most days she feels numb and in a fog, weak without defenses. She loads up on Xanax, Valium and Klonopin, sealing herself off behind a metaphorical pane of glass where no one and nothing can touch her. Nica’s death marks Grace’s official break from Jamie, Maddie, and Ruben--that is until she can’t handle it anymore and goes to Ruben for poppers and more prescription drugs, along with a little
Ecstasy and ketamine. “A brand new life was settling around me--it was ugly and it was empty and it was ok because thanks to the drugs I wasn’t really in it.”
After Nica’s murder is solved and the stench of scandal grows less pronounced, the Chandler
administration discover a problem: Grace and her parents, drifting around campus, faces pinched and sallow. This is made worse when Grace decides to dress like Nica, attending Jamie’s party where she’s promptly “banished in spirit if not in fact.” Dosed up on pills and booze, she lets Jamie seduce her. Wild with loneliness, she wears Nica’s magnetism in the same way she wears her clothes: “if only I’d put it on inside out, I repelled people.” Soon enough, Grace is slipping away, pretending not to notice the baffled looks on the faces of Jamie’s party-goers. In the study she sees Nica passing the French doors, then a few minutes later, Grace is bleeding over her reflection in the pool, almost gauzy with pain and confusion.
Like a fragment of a dream or a movie that is high with an intense hyper-vivid tone, Anolik complicates her mystery with Chandler’s sleaze, unfurling Grace’s search to discover the real killer, perhaps hidden within Nica’s fevered dreams. As Grace attempts
to connect the final shocking dots, she discovers secrets and lies at Chandler and how Nica’s sexual passions seemed
never far beneath the surface. Too often Nica, this raven-haired Goth teen, was
seen as the more mature of the sisters, which makes it even more startling when Grace discovers Nica’s feelings for Jamie and how deep they
ran. This might be Grace’s journey, but it’s also Nica’s. In a tale of two sisters, Nica’s artificial rebelliousness crumbles under the weight of family secrets and the counterfeit love that prompted her instinctive rejection of Jamie.
The book is rich and evocative, more literary novel than mystery thriller as it highlights the unraveling of friendships and family all within a cavalcade of secrets. In the space of a single afternoon, Grace discovers that Nica’s killer is still out in the world somewhere: “I’d known from the beginning that something about the murder wasn’t right, that it had been solved too early, that the explanation
was too pat.” As increasing amounts of booze and parties fail to quell Grace’s enthusiasm for finding Nica’s killer, she falls into the arms of handsome Damon who also proves to be connected to Nica. The truth can no longer be denied as Nica’s shadowy, ghostly presence quickly pulls Grace back into the dark arms of the real murderer.
Grace’s heavy burden really powers this story. As through a layer of glass, with Nica on the one side and Grace on the other, we see a girl driven by an abstract miscarriage of justice and of trying to reach Nica no matter how hard she tries. Heady territory which perhaps accounts for Grace’s sudden strength, her ability to take charge, and to make decisions with honed authority, particularly the climatic scene in which she discovers the brutal truth, a truth which undermines everything she’s ever known about Nica and her life.