By: Lindsey Pfeffer, Columnist
Views expressed in the column are the author’s own.
So, “They Wish They Were Us” actually is set in high school, but there isn’t a word for a co-ed sorority that plays games that end in murder, at the high school age, so we generalize a little bit. “They Wish They Were Us,” by Jessica Goodman, is twisty and profound, and spins in a crazy dance trying to figure out “who dunnit.” The dunning is the murder of Shaila Arnold, our protagonist’s best friend Jill, who died during initiation to “The Players” freshman year. The Players being, of course, the aforementioned clique by murder games.
Jill thought they caught the murderer, put Shaila’s death to rest, and moved on. We meet Jill in her senior year of high school, with the typical boys, parties and rich east coast school kids backdrop. I really enjoy this trope setup; it’s much easier to have a compelling plot if you don’t have parents who care and the teenagers have money.
As the story unfolds, we learn bits and pieces about what happened that night of initiation, when Shaila was killed. The main plot line follows Jill as she fights to come to terms with the fact that Shaila’s death didn’t erase her from the world; her photo is still up in the diner, and Jill is still friends with all the people who were also friends with Shaila. Everything is still the same, and I think that thought is why I enjoyed this book so much.
The plot is definitely engaging, and the characters might not be too original, but the questions and thoughts Jessica Goodman proposes to the reader through them really hit home for me. I first read this book in the first year of the pandemic, when things were changing rapidly, yet the whole country was just at a kind of standstill.
I think the most poignant part of this book is its reflection on that exact struggle. Jill feels changed by Shaila’s death, and the lack of change it has brought to the rest of her life is conflicting and confusing, and she can’t make sense of the reality of it. I think in reflection of COVID-19, most of us can understand that idea.
Shaila’s death is three years gone, the guilty party is locked up, and the case is closed. But then it turns out the case isn’t closed. The man in jail might not be guilty, and one of Jill’s friends might be responsible. Jill sees Shaila and reminders of her everywhere she goes and in all of the relationships she and Shaila used to share.
I think the writing style only enhances these feelings, but some might not like it. The style is very reminiscent of E. Lockhart’s “We Were Liars,” in the way that dialogue is secondary and the main plotline is delivered through an inner monologue. I find this writing style offers a lot of room for interpretation, room for sitting with the story for a minute instead of rushing to the next plot point. I personally think this book is more successful than “We Were Liars,” as this book doesn’t take itself quite as seriously, and the sparse dialogue doesn’t read as poetry.
Overall, this was one of my favorite reads of the pandemic. I give this book a solid 5/5, and I hope if you give it a shot, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.