Hot Takes and Popular Kids: My They Wish They Were Us Review

I've adored mysteries ever since I was a little kid, and I've recently started rediscovering my love for the mystery/thriller genre. So when I saw that a murder mystery set in an elite prep school was coming out this August, I knew I had to request the ARC.

Thus began my foray into They Wish They Were Us, a novel by debut author Jessica Goodman. I did enjoy it, but not for the reason I expected.

Book Title: They Wish They Were Us
Author: Jessica Goodman
Publisher/Year: Razorbill, 2020
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Number of Pages (According to Goodreads): 304
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book description (from Goodreads):
Gossip Girl meets One of Us Is Lying with a dash of The Secret History in this slick, taut murder mystery set against the backdrop of an exclusive prep school on Long Island.
In Gold Coast, Long Island, everything from the expensive downtown shops to the manicured beaches, to the pressed uniforms of Jill Newman and her friends, looks perfect. But as Jill found out three years ago, nothing is as it seems.
Freshman year Jill's best friend, the brilliant, dazzling Shaila Arnold, was killed by her boyfriend. After that dark night on the beach, Graham confessed, the case was closed, and Jill tried to move on.
Now, it's Jill's senior year and she's determined to make it her best yet. After all, she's a senior and a Player--a member of Gold Coast Prep's exclusive, not-so-secret secret society. Senior Players have the best parties, highest grades and the admiration of the entire school. This is going to be Jill's year. She's sure of it.
But when Jill starts getting texts proclaiming Graham's innocence, her dreams of the perfect senior year start to crumble. If Graham didn't kill Shaila, who did? Jill vows to find out, but digging deeper could mean putting her friendships, and her future, in jeopardy.

Sounds pretty juicy, right? Let's get into it.

Hot Take: I'm Not Sure This is Really a Thriller

I can't speak for all thriller fans, but for me, I expect a thriller to be primarily about solving a mystery. I love investigations, twists, revelations, and trying to put together the puzzle pieces along with the protagonist. Of course, I want character development and good storytelling as well, but I want it to revolve around the investigation.

However, They Wish They Were Us isn't really about the mystery. The character development aspect is the one that gets more focus, with most of the page time being dedicated to Jill's relationships with her friends and her struggle to succeed under a high amount of pressure.

According to my Kindle app, Jill only decides to help investigate Shaila's murder 42% of the way into the book. That's not to say that the first 42% of the book has no plot -- it's just not investigation-type plot.

And to be honest, it doesn't get much more sleuth-y from there. We get maybe one chapter of Jill going all Nancy Drew to find evidence, and then it's over and we're back to our regularly-scheduled power plays and friendship drama.

In general terms, this book reminded me of Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall -- a contemporary largely focused on themes and character dynamics, with a hint of another genre mixed in (thriller for They Wish They Were Us; speculative for Before I Fall). However, Before I Fall is actually marketed as a contemporary, so I knew what to expect going in.

I don't mean to say that this book isn't satisfying; it was just a bit jarring to go in expecting one thing, and only getting a small dollop of that thing in favor of something else.

Okay, But Was the Mystery Cool, At Least?

Ehhhh ...

I mean, there were some juicy reveals that I enjoyed, but if I'm honest I did guess the culprit pretty early on. The book did keep me guessing in terms of motive and how the whole thing played out, but I tend to prefer stories where the culprit is a surprise.

That's just me, though.

So What Makes This Book Good?

So far, it might sound like I didn't like this book, but ... once I switched up my expectations a bit, I actually really liked it. It's well-written, held my interest, and has a compelling cast of characters.

One of the main strengths of this book is its clever use of themes. It delivers commentary on privilege, cliques, and the way in which those in power can force people to do unpleasant things even if participation is supposedly voluntary.

(It also touched on the intersection of gender with this kind of "good ol' boys club" mentality, with the popular female characters not really getting a chance to call the shots despite being members of said club; but I thought this thread was a little half-baked, to be honest.)

I also loved Jill as a character. She starts off pretty unlikeable, but she has a great character arc which had me rooting for her hard. She's also an astronomy nerd like me, which I appreciated :D

One aspect that hit especially hard for me was Jill's fears for how her younger brother, Jared, would be affected by the Players' elaborate hazing rituals that he has to participate in. I have two younger brothers, and I totally relate to wanting them to keep them safe from corruption and harm (incidentally, as I was writing this, one of my brothers came into my room and started talking my ear off about the weird music album he just bought. I doubt he'll ever change).

Final Verdict

There's no doubt that They Wish They Were Us is a well-written and intriguing story, and I think that if I'd gone in knowing that it was pretty light on traditional mystery elements, I would probably have bumped it up to 4.5 or 5 stars. I hope that by reading this review, you'll know what to expect and enjoy it even more than I did :)

Bottom line: if you're looking for a well-written dark contemporary read, this book is for you. Just don't go in expecting Nancy Drew levels of sleuthing.

Thanks to Penguin Teen for the ARC of this book! They Wish They Were Us comes out on August 4th, so if this sounds like something you'd like, go ahead and preorder your copy now :D

Barnes and Noble | | Amazon | Goodreads

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