The It Girl Review: A compulsively readable mystery about memory and loss
Author Ruth Ware is known for her jaw-dropping psychological thrillers set in fabulous settings ranging from a rustic French ski chalet to a decadent cruise ship. Thus, his latest novel, The It Girl, can feel a bit like a departure from its familiar shape. It features a less luxurious setting – it’s set in the dormitories of Oxford University and the streets of present-day Edinburgh – and while the story is full of real tension, most of it isn’t about life. or dead. After all, the dead woman in this tale died over a decade before the events of the story, and life went on. (Most of the time, anyway.)
Yet the mystery at the heart of The It Girl is as propulsive as any of her other stories, thanks to Ware’s deft use of two alternate timelines to push the narrative forward and flesh out the life of the dead girl at its center. The ever-changing periods of time—the one in which we inch closer to April’s inevitable murder in the students’ freshman year and the one in which we slowly inch closer to its final resolution a decade later—are inextricably intertwined in such a way that they organically build towards a dramatic and explosive final confrontation. (Your mileage can and probably will vary depending on whether the outcome of it all is actually too much for the story Ware tells, with its convoluted betrayals and violence, but it’s certainly impossible to look away.)
The height of summer is peak pool season (or beach season depending on where you live) and in many ways, The It Girl it looks like it was put together in a lab to be read on a lounge chair over a long afternoon. Yes, its central mystery may not be as convoluted as some of Ware’s other efforts, the realistic character work and compulsively readable prose will be enough to draw anyone into the story and keep them there.
The story follows Hannah Jones, whose roommate was murdered while a student at Oxford. April Clarke-Cliveden was the first person Hannah met when she arrived at Pelham College and the two became best friends despite their differences in temperament, study habits and social class. Their life together at school was almost ridiculously quaint – weird traditions, late-night papers and members-only drinking clubs – alongside their inner circle of friends Emily Lippmann, Ryan Coates, Hugh Bland and Will de Chastaigne.
But when Hannah comes home from a party to find her friend strangled to death, their world comes crashing down. She suspects John Neville, a creepy school doorman with whom she had several uncomfortable run-ins during term and whom Hannah saw leave the stairs of their building just before discovering April’s body.
Ware divides her story into “before” and “after” segments – one that chronicles Hannah’s experience at Pelham College and another that follows the events of her life almost a decade later, when she is married to Will and pregnant with their first child. Afterwards, Neville dies in prison, and Hannah is contacted by a reporter working on a true crime story about his death, who is convinced that the authorities (and, by extension, Hannah) got it wrong. Hannah, tormented by the idea that she could have sent an innocent man to die in prison, begins to dig into the past to see if she can finally figure out what really happened that night.
Despite Will’s objections, Hannah seeks out Hugh, Emily, and Ryan to go through their memories of what happened to them precisely that year. But their memories challenge almost everything she thought she knew about April and her death. And Hannah’s obsession with April’s true fate becomes so severe that it begins to negatively impact both her health and her marriage, but in her mind she can’t rest until she does not discover the truth.
April, the titular It Girl, is unfortunately the novel’s least developed character, a poor little rich girl with daddy issues who’s a bit bitchy with her friends for no apparent reason and sadly memorable in the story world only for the horrible way she died. While Hannah, Will and the other characters are certainly haunted by both the hole April’s death ripped in their lives and the media frenzy that followed them for years, the story is not great for showing us what she really meant to one of them in life. (In fact, most of them — even Hannah, at times — didn’t really seem to like her that much.)
Ware is particularly good at making it seem like virtually every character we meet at any point in the story could be a suspect – or at least have some believable enough motivation to want April dead or to cover up. what really happened to him. But the story is not a breathless page-turner like some of the author’s other works. In place, The It Girl deftly delves into the lingering effects of trauma and survivor guilt, showing us how one girl’s death forever changed those who knew her, the people they ultimately became, and the connections between them.
Hannah’s emotional state is particularly multifaceted, as she mourns the loss of a best friend and questions her own judgment in blaming Neville for killing her. Plus, she married April’s ex-boyfriend, which adds another layer of weirdness to everything else that the romance is just beginning to scratch the surface of. Perhaps due to the need to leave him a viable potential suspect for April’s murder – I mean, the boyfriend is always the first person the police look at for a reason – the novel often holds Will to a certain readers distance, and it’s hard to ever really feel like we know him. (There are plenty of readers who talk about how much he and Hannah love each other and don’t show it much.)
At the end, The It Girl is a generally satisfying, if not particularly memorable, thriller. When the pieces finally come together, they all come together (although you’ll probably have assumed that a different person killed April at least twice before the final reveal). A compulsively readable diversion even if it has a little less narrative punch than some of its predecessors.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the editor of Paste Magazine, but loves to dabble in all kinds of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.