Book review: Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

This review is taking place near 4 AM after several chants of “one more chapter,” so if it gets a little muddled, that’s sleep deprivation. I got Pretty Little Liars because it was supposed to be outside my comfort zone of fantasy and horror. Turns out it’s an older comfort zone, something I haven’t read since my early teens. It’s one part soap opera with one part mystery, and I really can’t wait to read the next book in this series.

The first chapter was a little slow as a start, but from then on, my only constant thought was “GOT-DAMN! WHERE WAS THIS KIND OF BOOK WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER?!” I mean, sure, I’ve read similar stories in my teens, but those were always about do-gooder teens who were trying to solve some mystery. Think Nancy Drew, but with some PG-13 snogging on the side. But this…these main characters are the bit characters that those old books always held up as the worst examples while the narrator suddenly aged twenty years to lecture, “Kids, don’t be like this or you’ll end up a useless nobody.”

There’s affairs with older guys, teen drinking, pot smoking, bulimia, shoplifting, and repressed lesbian desires. Oh my gosh, I’m fanning myself and trembling with barely contained excitement. It’s like someone heard all of my teenage complaints “where are the characters like me?” These young ladies are everything I ever wanted in my fiction, and then some.

But let me back up. The first chapter, the slow one, gives an introduction to five friends; Emily, Hanna, Aria, Spencer, and their undisputed leader Alison. From the start, it’s clear that these friendships have become strained, but at the start of what could turn into a defining argument, Alison leaves and just disappears.

Three years later, the remaining four girls are now estranged from each other, and each are dealing with their own personal soap operas. Hanna is focused on maintaining her perfect image after using bulimic purging to get her weight under control. Aria, freshly returned from Europe, has fallen for a hot guy who just happens to be her English teacher. Spencer is cracking under the strain of all her school obligations when she falls for her sister’s boyfriend, again. And Emily is sent to welcome the new family moving into Alison’s house, only to find herself falling for her new neighbor Maya.

But these personal dramas all become linked by one common theme, a series of messages from someone signing their messages with a single letter, A. Is it Alison? Or is it someone else who is impersonating her? A knows things that only Alison knew, and with every message, the four former friends struggle to guess who might be behind these ominous taunts. And yet, they can’t talk to each other. The past is such a heavy burden on them that they each must deal with the problem alone.

The book ends like a schoolhouse special, with each of the girls’ private lives exploding in spectacular fashion. This is where the old books I knew would get around to the loudest lecturing, but not this book. No, this book pulls off a devious little twist that both reunites the four friends and leaves wide open the central question: who is A, and how do they know so much about Alison’s friends? There’s other questions left open as well, dark events only mildly hinted at in this book. As I close the back cover and set the book down, I feel desperate to know the answers to all these questions, and to find out how each character digs their way out of their private circles of hell.

I give Pretty Little Liars 5 stars, and while it’s not normally my habit to pick up the next book in any series right away, I might just have to hunt down Flawless in the next few MINUTES. I NEED to know what happens next.