Hannah Sanders is throwing a Sweet Sixteen party to celebrate her birthday with pizza, cake, movies, and a sleepover. Her parents, Jeff and Kim, have done everything to ensure the success of the gathering, Kim reminding the guests of the house rules--especially no alcohol or drugs. Kim is a stickler for rules, taking her role as mother seriously. The family’s beautiful home in a wealthy San Francisco neighborhood is a testament to their investment in the future. Kim rigorously attends to her family’s needs, sports, music lessons,
and private school, while Jeff spends long days at work. While Kim offers warnings with the pizza she and Jeff deliver to the basement, Jeff stays behind, slipping the girls a bottle of pink champagne: “You’re only sixteen once.” There’s not much damage one bottle can do when shared by five girls.
Besides Hannah’s two longtime friends, Caitlin and Marta, she has invited two popular girls, Ronni and Lauren. Thrilled that they are accepting her into their exclusive group, Hannah is desperate to please them.
Her boyfriend, Noah, would never have noticed her if not for Ronnie and Lauren. This party has to be a success. To that end, Hannah has hidden a bottle she filled with her parents’ vodka. Caitlin has brought a few Valium. Caught between being a good student and one of the most popular girls, Hannah has been seduced by her new friends, not to mention Noah’s attention. If she has to break some rules, she’s willing: “Hannah didn’t want to be the girl with strength of character. She wanted to be the cool girl, the popular girl.” Now her wish has come true. Two floors up, Jeff is sound asleep, Kim as well, after two glasses of wine and half a sleeping pill. The couple is oblivious. It isn’t until Kim wakes up to her daughter’s entreaties that she realizes something is wrong. Hannah is pleading for help, her hands covered in blood.
Harding creates a chilling scenario that changes everything: the Sanders’s marriage, the girls at the party and their families. The tragedy occurs in the basement, but the consequences reverberate through more than one household
and the lives of parents. The teens at school, where rumors breed the particular cruelty of teenagers who bully the weaker among them, thrive on the chaos they spread. Judged by others, Kim and Jeff are outraged that anyone might blame them for what happened. Their marriage shows new fissures, Kim growing angrier, Jeff making foolish mistakes, out of his depth. Caught in the treacherous world of adolescents, Hannah grapples with her own demons, afraid of losing her new friends, especially Lauren. It is a strict hierarchy where social standing is critical.
Envy and cruelty thrive, every choice fraught with the threat of exposure.
Through different perspectives--Kim, Jeff, Hannah and the mother of one of the girls, Lisa--balance on a precipice.
The tension builds with each development between husbands and wives, parents and children, friends against friends, family secrets exposed and sides chosen. Make no mistake: this unfortunate disharmony since the night of the tragedy exposes human flaws in excruciating detail. Selfish adults clash, dishonesty exacerbated by the need for self-preservation: married couples stop communicating; a mother wields her rage like a sword, caught in a cycle of fury and righteousness. The teens suffer the most, captive to an ugly secret.
Bullying takes the place of compassion, cruelty easier to bear than unpopularity. The author dissects her unlikeable characters with savage honesty
as each stumbles through the detritus of bad decisions, scarred--albeit invisibly--by a lack of courage.