Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard is a deceptive book. On first glance it looks like one of a million Gossip Girl followers with its shiny, attractive girls on the cover and its high society setting. When I picked it up during a lunch break at work, I was expecting something light and commercialistic, what I found instead was a Twin Peaks-esque story line where instead of trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer I was left wondering if Alison DiLaurentis was even dead.
Emily Fields, Aria Montgomery, Spencer Hastings, Hanna Marin and Alison DiLaurentis are the best of friends. Having bonded originally during charity work at Rosewood Day School, their link to one another solidifies after the Jenna incident (a mysterious event alluded to with mentions of ambulances and police officers). It is through their connection to Alison—the brightest and most beautiful of the Rosewood girls—that they become popular, but it is due to her domineering personality that they live in doubt. Alison is the Queen Bee, the girl in charge, and should anyone step out of line she let’s them know.
But then one evening, during a botched slumber party, Alison disappears.
Fast forward several years, with Emily, Aria, Spencer and Hanna all going their separate ways; no longer friends and no longer even really on speaking terms. Emily’s still swimming, but doubting her commitment and still missing Alison, the one love of her life; Aria’s just moved back from Iceland where she’s lived quite happily, and is thrust back into memories that she’d rather forget along with a forbidden relationship with her teacher; Spencer’s walking the tight rope of perfectionism with increasingly imperfect balance as she competes against a sister who will always win; and Hanna’s perfect façade, relationship and control are cracking as she spirals back into the binging and purging that allowed her to achieve her so-called perfection in the first place. And helping each character get her comeuppance is the mysterious A, who texts and tattles their deepest secrets and fears.
Is A, Alison, the only person who could conceivably know of their many perceived flaws and mistakes? Is their long, lost friend exerting her influence to once again to control their lives or is A someone else entirely, someone bent on revenge for the Jenna incident that these girls caused back in middle school? What happens when someone tries to take down the popular girls one at a time?
Sara Shepard does not attempt to answers all these questions in Pretty Little Liars, but instead lays the groundwork for the downfall of these “perfect” Rosewood girls in this novel (the first in a series of four). Nor does she try to convince us that these girls live lives that anyone should emulate, showing that each perfect façade is built on a rotten foundation. Emily, Aria, Spencer and Hanna aren’t bad girls, so much as girls who’ve each gone out of control in their own way. With no safety nets like close friends or family to fall back on, A is able to pull them all apart piece by piece, even causing them to doubt one another, the only people that dould understand their situations and constraints. In the end, Shepard leaves them with a chance to band together and help one another, but it is clear that A is not done with them yet.
Pretty Little Liars defies the definition of being a guilty pleasure (a label often applied to Gossip Girls and others) through a combination of smart writing and an interesting plot, but it is not without its flaws. Emily’s forays into lesbianism with Maya, while they may fall under the label “forbidden,” ranks low on the list of crimes—moral or legal—the other girls have committed (Hanna’s thievery, Aria’s relationship with her teacher, and Spencer’s relationship with her sister’s boyfriend). Her fumbling and heart-felt conclusion that she doesn’t want to live a lie anymore seems to counter any reason A has for her persecution. Emily, of all the girls, seemed to truly love Alison the most (and feel the most regret for the Jenna incident) and comes to some serious realizations about herself as the others self-destruct. The introduction at the end of her parents’ racist thoughts as a further barrier to her growth seemed almost a tag on, as if to reaffirm the overarching theme of parental pressure and disapproval that all the girls are operating under, destroying the story’s one possibility at a semi-healthy family.
In fact, I take issue with the portrayal of all the parents within the novel. Not one girl seems to have a supportive or cohesive parental unit that is there for them: Hanna’s mother seems to be in a subversive competition with her daughter, urging her on even as she tears her down; Spencer’s parents are so focused on perfectionism that they can’t see her self-destruction or recognize any aberrant behavior for what it is—a way to escape her sister’s shadow; and Aria is forced by her parents into an adult role through her knowledge of her father’s affair and her practically limitless freedom in Europe, only to have that yanked away when they arrive back in the United States. With parents like these, it is no wonder that each girl acts out in destructive ways and has no one to lean on. I know that this is meant to cause the girls to rely on one another, and these parental relationships are realistic in their portrayal, but the overall smear against parental authority is overkill.
Still, there are the only sour notes in this otherwise engrossing society girl who-done-it, appropriate for older teens and adults alike. Alison’s fate—revealed at the end of the novel—only causes more questions than answers, and Jenna’s arrival on the scene does not bode well. A is utterly faceless and remorseless, relentlessly picking away at the each girl and cackling over their downfall. It’s clear that s/he is not done with Hanna, Emily, Aria or Spencer, nor is s/he prepared to reveal the reasons for her/his revenge. Poised for their complete social downfall, these girls only have each other, and their own abilities to cope with the situations they have caused.
If you’re interesting in checking out Pretty Little Liars and following the mysterious of what happened to Alison DiLaurentis, you can find it here and here. If you’re interesting in learning more about Sara Shepard and her next book Flawless, you can find her here.