Published by HMH on June 7th, 2016
It was the perfect trip…until it wasn’t.
Eighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital room, leg in a cast, stitches in her face and a big blank canvas where the last six weeks should be. She discovers she was involved in a fatal car accident while on a school trip in Italy. A trip she doesn’t even remember taking. She was jetted home by her affluent father in order to receive quality care. Care that includes a lawyer. And a press team. Because maybe the accident…wasn’t an accident.
As the accident makes national headlines, Jill finds herself at the center of a murder investigation. It doesn’t help that the media is portraying her as a sociopath who killed her bubbly best friend, Simone, in a jealous rage. With the evidence mounting against her, there’s only one thing Jill knows for sure: She would never hurt Simone. But what really happened? Questioning who she can trust and what she’s capable of, Jill desperately tries to piece together the events of the past six weeks before she loses her thin hold on her once-perfect life.
Yet another contemporary thriller cuts through my awful reading slump. I was hooked into With Malice from the jump. Something about Jill’s easy voice and the Amanda Knox vibes of the plot just kept me turning the pages when no other book has been able to do that for two months. So even though it wasn’t perfect, this book gets huge props from me. The story is consuming and easily-consumed.
The first thing that really stood out to me as I got a little ways into the book was the astounding amount of research the author very obviously did before settling down to write. Not only is it clear that she did actual research on retrograde amnesia and the rehabilitation thereof, it was also impossible to hide the fact that Cook made a trip to the parts of Italy present in the story. The medical aspects of the book, which took up a lot of pages, were handled with care. Very often a character with amnesia is just thrown back into their old life and expected to adapt quickly. But the reality is that a head injury that severe – where the character is missing at least the last six weeks of her life – needs to be treated. She’s not going to be out of the hospital and back to normal in a few days. I also loved that Cook threw in the aphasia aspect, too. I’ve known people in my personal life who have suffered from neurological trauma and they struggled to find words as simple as “school.” This level of care taken with Jill’s condition made the story all the more real to me. I also thought it was great that the author didn’t merely Google Street View her way through Italy. I know it’s not feasible for most people, but to dedicate the time and effort and money into a trip to the place she was writing about added a layer of authenticity to the story. We didn’t see the normal landmarks like the Colosseum, but tiny hole in the wall bakeries and the nature of the Tuscan countryside and all kinds of smaller details that could easily be missed.
Obviously, I loved the mystery surrounding the entire plot. It was my favorite part of the whole reading experience. With Jill’s retrograde amnesia, she has no recollection of the events that lead to her injuries and to her best friend, Simone’s death. I love unreliable narrators of all sorts – the kind who are lying to you, the kind whose judgment is impaired, and the kind who honestly don’t know. We unravel the mystery at the same pace as Jill does – but we have even less to go on when sorting out the facts. We can either choose to trust Jill when she says she and Simone were the best of friends, that things would never, ever escalate to violence between them. Or we can recognize that Jill has a vested interest in believing that about herself. I love stories where the truth is not easily separated from the sticky, ugly bits and this story did that well.
I think where the book falters is in its originality. It was very, very hard not to compare With Malice to Dangerous Girls. Both books are about girls who may or may not have killed their best friend, with stories full of lies, jealousy, and the complexity that is teen-girl-friendship. They both also contain epistolary elements, from police statements, to interviews, to television show transcripts. It was very strange going through With Malice with these thoughts in the back of my head. I kind of feel bad because my love for DG runs deep and I don’t think anything can really beat it or even come close.View Spoiler »Where these two stories differ, though, is in the ending. Dangerous Girls gives a concrete answer to the mystery, where With Malice is very much open to reader interpretation. Did Jill do it? We know by the end that she starts “remembering” her time in Italy. But we also know from meetings with her therapist, that Jill is vulnerable to false memory, especially under this amount of stress, and especially if someone were to “suggest” something to Jill. So was her dream just a dream, or did Jill really drive herself and her best friend straight into that wall, ending Simone’s life? I think the only one who can really answer that is Simone, and we all know what happened to her. « Hide Spoiler
Despite my minor misgivings, With Malice deserves a space on any thriller lover’s TBR. The voice and narration are highly engaging and the epistolary chapters keep the book moving at a breakneck pace. The mystery had me guessing until the very last page. This is obviously a great readalike for Dangerous Girls but also for Truly Madly Deadly by Hannah Jayne.