Coming to terms with a brutal murder in small-town Virginia gets complicated when the unnamed narrator falls for Charlie, the victim’s bereaved boyfriend.
Of the five girls Kyle texted, one of whom was the protagonist, only Jamie responded. Kyle said he needed a listening ear, and Jamie was kind. After confessing to her murder, Kyle was jailed immediately. A year later, the other four girls are asked to testify at the sentencing hearing for which the death penalty is sought. Coping with her feelings is still hard for the narrator; when her relationship with Charlie turns intimate, his violent grief and hatred of Kyle threaten to destroy their romance. While the protagonist barely knew either killer or victim, she nearly responded positively to Kyle’s text suggesting they get high—a near miss that haunts her during a year of agony. The female characters object to threats from boys while passively tolerating other behavior and comments that amount to sexual harassment. The protagonist’s sharp eyes, wry views, and judgments are highlights, but excessive length, low stakes, and dead-end plot twists that work against suspense try readers’ patience. The presence of genuine literary merit, particularly in the portrayal of intense grief, only serves to highlight aspects of the book that fall short, such as insufficient development of Kyle’s character. One girl’s Asian boyfriend excepted, characters are presumed white.
A veneer of gravitas hides little substance. (Fiction. 14-18)