After devouring The Woman in Cabin 10, I was excited to get my hands on another Ruth Ware book. Initially I was enjoying this book, especially the parts that take place at the boarding school, but I didn't fully buy in. I don't want to make comparisons, and whether this was on purpose or not, but there were echos of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Is Donna Tartt not one of the most brilliant literary voices? This seems like a compliment, right? But in fact, this comparison does this book a disservice because Ware is a strong enough writer to stand on her own and not have to draw on this inspiration. Again, this may be me creating the parallel between the two, so I'll move on. But it's there: the exclusivity, the boarding school, the murder, the circumstances, the lasting effects of the death on the group, and that it is a murder mystery in reverse.
There is an immediate hook—a woman is walking her dog in the quaint coastal village of Salten along the section of river known as the Reach where the tide meets the stream. Her dog charges into the water to retrieve what is perceived to be a large stick, when in fact it is a human bone.
The next morning, three women—Isa, Fatima, and Thea—get a text from Kate, the fourth in their exclusive group, that simply says "I need you". Hoping they would never get this request, they drop everything and rush back to Salten. The girls were a fearless foursome at the Salten House boarding school. They used to play the Lying Game which involved telling the most outrageous things to people for points. Only there are rules: tell a lie, stick to your story, don't get caught, never lie to each other, and know when to stop the lie. For some, the lines become blurred with what are actual facts versus what is fantasy. Ware reveals bits and pieces of the girl's time at the Salten boarding school, and how extreme the game got—they were all expelled in their final year under mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the art teacher, Ambrose, who also happens to be Kate's eccentric father.
Where this book stumbles is with our narrator, Isa. She is a new mother, and Ware loses the plot because this character is so consumed by this role. The baby proves to be a distraction for both Isa and the reader which ultimately detracts from the story. Without the baby, Isa could still be an unreliable narrator—her memories of events are viewed through the lens of a naive young girl who seems enchanted with Ambrose, Kate, and Luc (the step-son/step-brother). More of the girls' time at school needed to be written and the other characters needed more attention. I found it a stretch that these girls were only friends for such a short time, yet remained so incredibly loyal over the span of 17 years. There was simply so much more to the story. Ware took a wrong direction, not in using Isa as our narrator, but with hinging so much of her character on being a mother. The boarding school, and the girls' past is paramount to the plot, yet none of the characters were really fleshed out.