4.5 Stars out of 5
Everyone has secrets, right? What really matters is how far you would go to protect them.
Published on May 30th 2017, “One of Us Is Lying” is the debut novel of American author Karen M. McManus. Described as “The Breakfast Club” meets “Pretty Little Liars”, the novel centres around the murder mystery in a California high school. One afternoon, five students enter detention but only four leave alive. Simon, the creator of a notorious gossip app plaguing Bayview High School, has an allergic reaction and dies in hospital – only the investigative team involved say his death was no accident and that each of the four students in the room at the time had motive to keep Simon quiet.
“One of Us Is Lying” is one of those rare contemporary novels that swoops in out of nowhere and creates a genuinely compelling narrative in which you, the reader, have no idea what is going to happen next.
When I first picked up this novel, what really drew me in was the description. The title and the cover on Amazon seemed intriguing enough, but when I looked it up of GoodReads to see just what it was about, it became an instant purchase. Aside from the inspiration of “The Breakfast Club”, what was presented was a simple murder mystery. Five teenagers enter detention, but one of them dies when the teacher leaves the room. It seems pretty clear cut; but not when you read it. The story is told from the perspective of each of the suspected teenagers, so instantly you are placed in the position of having four unreliable narrators. The title literally tells you ‘one of us is lying’, so trust in what these characters are telling you is not at all very high when beginning the novel; but McManus does something smart in giving so many perspectives, she releases information when it will give the most impact having teased about it earlier on. It turned into a more compelling read than I was initially expecting.
Firstly, I need to talk about the writing because this will be the shortest part. McManus’ writing style was very generic. There wasn’t anything especially special about it when it came to reading from a characters point of view. Aside from minor points such as Cooper’s accent, there was nothing that made any of these characters really stand apart vocally. If it weren’t for the titles at the beginning of every section telling me which character was narrating, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you unless one of those heavy-handed clarifiers popped up. When you read a story from a characters point of view, you want their voice to be unique. This person is telling you what they think, what they’re going through, they need a voice that shows who they are. The characters in this novel didn’t really have that.
Heavy-handed is definitely the way I would describe the majority of the dialogue or thought processes in this novel. Things like:
Of course. “TF” from About That is TJ Forrester. The lack of a J confused me.
Or whenever a character starts talking about something branded or relevant in pop culture. It feels like McManus is trying to make a point sometimes about certain characters and their differences from others, such as the stark difference between Nate and Bronwyn, but ends up coming across as subtle as a sponsor plug on a YouTube video. It didn’t feel natural.
But that doesn’t take away from how compelling the narrative was. Honestly, thoughts about heavy-handedness fell to the wayside because of how brilliantly intricate the story was. You don’t know which character, if any, you can trust towards the beginning of the novel and the feeling of dread and anxiety slowly builds as the story reaches its conclusion. Titbits of information are scattered through each perspective, secrets beyond those threatened to be exposed are hinted at and then later come into fruition, and characters outside the main four come and go with ease.
Each of the main characters in this novel is great in their own ways, and the deeper into the novel the more you realise (at the same times as the characters themselves) that they are not as one dimensional as you may think at the beginning.
There’s Bronwyn Rojas, described in the synopsis as the brain. She is the first character we hear from in the story. She’s also our first introduction to the character of Simon (whom I’ll talk about in more detail later). The first impression of Bronwyn is that she’s smart. She’s a part of multiple school activities and has a clear plan for her future. She’s Mathlete, she has a crush on a boy named Evan who may or may not have started to notice her too, and she has big plans with her straight A school record to go to Yale. However, you learn that there is a chink in her armour when it comes to Science, and that is where Simon targets. As the story progresses you learn more about her family, how her younger sister is a cancer survivor, and how she feels the pressures of being the continuation of her family legacy. Bronwyn is from a rich family, her mother is described as fourth generation Irish and her father is from Colombia. Her father is an ever present figure wanting her to live beyond any stereotypes, to succeed and be the next member of their family to go to Yale. You get to witness in retrospectively the balancing act Bronwyn had to create to get as far as she did, and how she picks up the pieces again when it all comes crumbling down. She’s the character that is cool under pressure. That’s not to say that she doesn’t have any faults or moments of weakness. She’s the most reliable character.
Second up to bat (and yes, that is a pun) is Cooper Clay, the southern athlete with the name that could land him a starring role in a Marvel comic. Cooper is the jock, and one that is being scouted by very prominent people. He’s made a name for himself by improving in a very short space of time. Only a few question how this came to be though. He has all the charm of a southern gentleman, has a girlfriend most of the boys wish they could be with and a family that supports him one hundred percent. However, Cooper has more to him than just his pitching skills. He’s a character that is tired of only having one side of him supported. Again, it’s the father figure in his life putting pressures on him to be perfect, to get into a scholarship that could lead him to great things. He even nicknames him Cooperstown because of it. But Cooper has more than one secret which gives his character an edge that many young athletes (and young people in general) can relate to. The reveal of this second secret leads to a situation of public humiliation that is still all too common both in school life and in the athletics scene. Cooper tries to play the every-man, when he’s anything but.
Third to narrate is Addy Prentiss, the beauty. Addy has one of the best character arcs of the entire novel. She begins as the stereotypical popular girl – she’s pretty, she’s got long blonde hair, she’s dating Cooper’s best friend, a fellow jock named Jake Riordan, and everything she does is pretty much perfect. Her fatal flaw is she never thinks for herself, she’s a doormat and her sister, Ashton, is very quick to let her know. She’s mostly controlled by Jake. She’s been in a relationship with him since they were fourteen, and he basically tells her what to wear, how to keep her hair, what makeup he likes her to wear. He drives her everywhere and all of her free time is spent with him. Theirs is a toxic relationship but it’s the only thing she’s ever known, and it’s this that Simon targets. Addy is also stuck with a mother dating a man half her age, who likes to flirt with Jake, and has only one goal for both her daughter’s: for them to marry rich and well and never be alone. So she has a pretty bad example of what a relationship is thanks to her mother. But as the story progresses, Addy grows so much as a character. She redefines herself, she fights through loss and heartbreak and isolation as her friends turn against her because of everything to do with Simon.
And finally is Nate Macauley, the criminal. Already on probation for dealing drugs, Nate is the character who gets the brunt of the blame. After the ordeal Addy goes through, I’d say Nate is the person who gets the second hardest time of each of these characters. His secret, unsurprisingly, is that he’s still dealing even though it would break his probation and land him in a juvenile prison. He’s first seen as cocky and arrogant, the kind of boy who is used to being in trouble and knows how to work his way around the system. He’s the guy the officers investigating Simon’s death call the scapegoat, the one it would be easy to pin everything on. But then you learn about his horrible home life, how his bipolar drug addict of a mother ran away seven years prior, how his father got injured working and now sits around putting himself into an alcoholic coma waiting for benefit cheques to role in. Nate deals but never takes, he does what he can to add to his family’s miniscule income to keep a roof over their heads because both of his parents figuratively and literally abandoned him. It’s never made into an excuse, and Nate himself throughout the story makes a point of not using his upbringing as a way to get people to sympathise with him; he’s the character that makes the most of a shitty situation.
Finally, there’s Simon Kelleher, the outcast. And he really is. Simon is a character that I felt little sympathy for. That will sound horrible without context, but once you read the story you will understand where I’m coming from. I’ve said a few minor spoilers in this review but nothing major, and this guy has major spoilers for obvious reasons. He’s the guy who dies, the whole point of the story is to figure out why he died. But he earns and deserves his title of outcast, and never gets beyond that. He’s a gossip monger who feeds off of the destruction he causes in people’s lives, and then wonders why no one likes him. The level of entitlement this character has staggered me and yet it is all too real. He wants to be popular, and during the one and only time you hear this character speak, he’s creepy and smug. He does himself no favours.
Each of the side characters were also great in their own ways: Maeve, Bronwyn’s younger sister, is feisty and smart; Nonny, Cooper’s grandmother, is sassy and brilliant; Ashton, Addy’s older sister, is wilful and insightful.
My one bugbear with the story is the media explosion that happens around the case. I’m no expert on law, both criminal and media, but when characters are said to be seventeen-years-old, are called minors within the dialogue of the story, surely the press shouldn’t be saying their full names? The press shouldn’t be showing pictures of children until something is proven, until a judge has given a sentence. Their identities would be given away on social media because of the students, but the press shouldn’t be doing that.
I’ll clarify. I researched and found this document which states that a youth can be named for various reasons, such as public interest in the outcome of a trial, but for the most part the naming process seems to be after the conclusion of a trial and not during the investigation. Of course, this is UK law I’m reading and may be different for America but hey, it just seemed really sketchy to me.
Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed this novel. It’s the first book in a while that grabbed hold of me in such a way that it was almost painful to put it down. I managed to get through it so quickly because I had found a mystery I was invested in. It’s a subgenre that I would love to have more of. The setting, the characters, the development and unreliability of the narrators made this a rollercoaster of a story and I highly recommend picking up a copy. Plus the use of social media added a new age twist that I really enjoyed. It added a layer to the story that I wasn’t expecting and made it all feel a little more real, like I could go onto Tumblr right this second and load up the blog posting about the investigation from the inside. Karen M. McManus has created a very well-thought-through narrative that kept me hooked from start to finish.