Top critical review
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Great Concept, Fatally Flawed and Filled with Cliche's.
on December 28, 2010
I really, really wanted to like this book...
I haven't read Sara Shepard's Pretty Little Liars series, but the television spin-off became one of my guilty summer obsessions. Come on. It's fun to escape to a world filled with beautiful, haunted, wealthy teens. Especially teens who were full of delicious, dangerous secrets. The show's characters kept me tuned in because they were pretty, yes - but also dimensional and flawed and I wasn't quite sure what they were going to do next.
When The Lying Game was released a few weeks ago, I was kind of excited. I thought it would give me a chance to get to know some more of Shepard's great characters on a more intimate level, and follow them from the start of a new series. I'm pretty sure that's what the publisher was banking on (especially with the entirely unoriginal name tie-in) because on it's own, The Lying Game is so very far from fabulous, I can't even imagine her character's recommending it.
Let me just back up and give a short synopsis: Seventeen year old Emma has just been kicked out of her last foster home when she finds out she has an identical twin sister living in the next state. Well, not exactly living. Sutton, who appears as a ghostly narrator in the story, has just been murdered, and when Emma takes a road-trip to meet her long-lost twin she finds herself pulled into her sister's life and searching for clues to explain her death.
Doesn't sound like a bad concept, right? It's really not. In fact, the first part of the book had me hooked. I'm learning about Emma's slightly clichéd but still fairly interesting life. I'm digging her affection for journaling about comebacks she should have used and writing news headlines for her life. And I'm vastly curious about the snuff-film, the `Mean Girls' style game being played, and about Sutton and how she mysteriously died only to materialize in Emma's grungy bathroom with no memory of the event.
There's an urgency to the first portion of the book that felt real and scary and electrifying. But, one of the biggest problems I have with the book, is that it doesn't seem able to hold on to that electricity throughout.
As soon as Emma heads south to Tucson in search of Sutton, everything begins to goes down hill. Let's start with the obvious and glaring problem: Sutton doesn't show. Emma is kidnapped by Sutton's friends and her belongings are stolen. What does she do? She decides to impersonate her sister at a cool party, meet a hot guy or two, and then for bonus points, break into her sibling's house and pretend she is Sutton there as well. True, she doesn't learn about it her sister's death until the next morning, but the point is: Most of the time, no one in the book, including Emma and Sutton seem to even care that Sutton is dead. When Emma tries to tell the police and her parent's who she is, they all laugh it off and everyone moves on. And suddenly it's a story about a pretty girl, trying to fit in at a new school where everyone thinks she's someone else. OK. But was that the book I signed on for here? And, what about the murder?
No, no. We'd rather get into describing fancy houses, and meeting all of Sutton's annoyingly clone-like friends who walk around saying things like, "bee-yotch" and giggling about endless parties and trips to the spa and the mall. And the clothes. It was annoying that we couldn't get through a scene in the book without knowing precisely down to the designer and in many cases the name of the specific item what everyone was wearing. It was almost understandable in Sutton's half-sister and friends who I guess we are to believe really deeply care about such things. It was unforgivable in Emma who supposedly grew up dirt-poor and we were lead to imagine had a bit more original interests in life and even more so in Sutton, who slips these references in while narrating. I'm sorry. You have death-amnesia. You can't remember how you died, or really anything significant about your life, but you know who designed those cute cut-away heels? I'm now looking forward to the hereafter.
Despite the fact that this type of fashion-headed mean-girl stereotyping is distracting and boring, I could probably live with one character like that in the book. Yes, you may think you've seen these characters before. I felt like I was watching an episode of Pretty Little Liars on TV at times. (Sutton reminded me a lot of a lazy, non-intellectual version of Spencer.) The problem is that Sutton's friends come across as so identical that other than Charlotte's oft mentioned broad shoulders and red hair, I can't tell them apart most of the time. They all play tennis, they all shop and go to the spa, and they are all frankly pretty obnoxious and nasty. And unlike the television characters, they have no personality or even real storyline to make them unique in any way.
I sometimes got the feeling the author actually knew much more about these subsidiary characters but for the sake of mystery was leaving it out. If that was the case, it back-fired. They didn't manage to come across as mysterious. Just flat. I couldn't bring myself to really care about any of them. And I found myself angry at the author for writing a book where that was all there was to high-school girls. She gives them no credit for being intelligent, funny, capable young women with minds of their own and interests other than fashion and boys. There is some mention of real tragedy touching the lives of a few of these girls, and yet it doesn't seem to have affected them, at all. Even pretty little rich girls are not that shallow, and I think this book although at times fun, is ultimately un-relatable because of these demeaning assumptions.
Around this point I had to force myself to try to finish the book.
Another thing that really began to bother me was the narration. This book has two narrators. Sutton, who is dead and watching Emma's action, while sporadically interjecting her own commentary and sputtering memories, and a general narrator who seems a bit more omniscient and able to get into Emma's head. The problem is there is no warning when switching between narrators, and almost every time it happened I would realize half-way through a paragraph that Sutton was now speaking and have to go back and try to figure out where she started. It did not flow at all. I'm not sure why the author went with this technique. It seemed in the beginning as if it was going to be told with Sutton as the only Narrator, and was frankly more interesting that way. She even explained HOW Sutton had knowledge of what was in Emma's head. But somewhere along the line, she either got bored with that approach, or decided Sutton didn't really have enough to say or simply forgot from which perspective she was writing because it just grows more and more confusing as the story progresses.
And then we have what I'm going to call "The stupid factor." There were just so very few intelligent characters in this book. Not only do they seem to not really care about anything intelligent, they do really dumb, stupid things. Repeatedly. The dangerous pranks are just the beginning. More problematic was the annoying way that the author wrote as if she were assuming anyone reading the book was as stupid as her characters. She would hint blatantly at things so that you knew what was going to happen and then offer a big reveal of what she had already made clear was going on. Again, if this had happened once, I would let it slip, but over and over throughout the book to the point that I was literally groaning out loud as I read it, and I started to wonder exactly who her target audience was. I laughed out loud at the thought of any male (teen or otherwise) trying to make it through this thing. And if he did, what on earth would he come away thinking about girls?
Finally, towards the end of the book we start getting back into the murder and some suspense and action. Unfortunately, all we get is a set-up for the next book, and not even a big, revealing or shocking one at that. No mystery was solved. Nothing really changed for any of these characters from the point that Emma arrived in Tucson, and at the end of the day, I sadly felt as if all I had done was kind of meet some pretty poorly developed characters and learn about a murder that will likely get solved in book four.
I'm disappointed, mainly because I feel like this book really had so much potential. I'm not sure what happened along the way. Possibly it was decided that it needed to be stretched out into a series when it might have packed a punch as a single book. It just felt very unfinished to me, almost as if I was reading a rough draft.
I can't say I don't entirely care what happens in the subsequent books; I just don't think I can wade through them if they are as poorly developed as this one. Especially when there are so many other great books for young adults on the shelves these days. For this series to stand a chance, Shepard will really have to step up her game for the next book.