ABOUT A BOOK #04: MY REVIEW OF JESSICA GOODMAN’S THEY WISH THEY WERE US.
Updated: Jul 17
Greetings and bienvenue, all.
In this fourth installment of my About a Book series, I’ll be reviewing Jessica Goodman’s 2020 Young Adult Mystery novel They Wish They Were Us.
First things first, though.
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With that in mind and without further ado, as follows is my review of Jessica Goodman’s They Wish They Were Us.
Title: They Wish They Were Us
Author: Jessica Goodman
Published by: Razorbill
Publication Date: 4 August 2020
Page Length: 336 (Hardcover)
Reading Age: 14 – 18 years
*BE WARNED: MILD TO MEDIUM SPOILERS FOLLOW*
• PREMISE •
Jill Newman is a senior at the ultra-exclusive Gold Coast Prep and a member of the even more exclusive open-secret society “The Players.” Each year, several carefully handpicked freshmen are chosen for initiation—and readily endure embarrassing, humiliating, and even physically dangerous “pops” to achieve full-fledged Player status. But now that Jill’s friend Nikki has inherited leadership of The Players, Jill hopes to end the ruthless hazing and make the initiation process safer and more fun.
When Jill and Nikki were freshmen, their best friend Shaila Arnold was murdered during the initiation period. Shaila’s boyfriend Graham Calloway confessed and has since languished in a juvenile detention facility, awaiting transfer to a federal prison upon his encroaching eighteenth birthday.
Halfway into the year, Graham’s sister Rachel contacts Jill, convinced that there’s proof of Graham’s innocence and wanting Jill’s help to clear Graham’s name before he’s transferred away.
This places Jill in a very tenuous position. Both The Players and the Prep administration make clear to her that they will not stand for her investigating the scandalous possibility that another member of the Prep community murdered Shaila and framed Graham. And as a scholarship kid from a hand-to-mouth family, Jill can ill afford to rock the boat. She needs both stellar grades and her Players connections to secure admission to her dream college, which she sees as her ticket to a better future for both herself and her family.
However, being both Shaila’s friend and a human being with a social conscience, Jill feels compelled to help Rachel investigate the likelihood that Graham was framed for Shaila’s murder.
• MY REVIEW •
I first heard of They Wish They Were Us after it was announced that an HBO Max series (The Players Table) based on the book was in development and that Halsey and Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney had signed on as both stars and producers.
They Wish They Were Us is marketed as a YA Mystery novel that blends themes from such popular works as Gossip Girl, One of Us is Lying, and The Secret History. In that regard, the book leans heavily into the subgenre of boarding school mysteries; most of its major characters are privileged yet irresponsible and horny teenagers; and the secrets, lies, and prejudices of those characters are of crucial importance to the main mystery.
First, the good:
1. First things first. Despite being a novel released during the height of pandemic times, They Wish They Were Us makes no mentions of or allusions to COVID—and I couldn’t be happier. I understand that Goodman spent about four years writing and rewriting this story before shopping it around, and perhaps that’s why the book reads like a pre-COVID tale. Nevertheless, I’m glad that it does. While I do tend to like for even my fictional books to reflect life in the real world, portraying the recent pandemic in a book like this one would’ve only hampered the story and likely made an already dark tale even worse.
2. The diction is the novel’s strongest point. Goodman does a sterling job of pulling the reader into Jill’s head so that you sympathize in her tribulations, celebrate in her triumphs, and understand her insecurities and crises of conscience. Jill presents believably as a relatable kid from a poor family who struggles deeply with being good enough to honor the sacrifices that her parents have made to position her for a better life than theirs. And Jill’s running internal debate about whether to help right a miscarriage of justice at the potential cost of attending an Ivy League university—while reeking on a surface level of first world problems—is presented in a way that makes it hard not to feel for her through her struggle.
Goodman also does well in setting the story’s stage (primarily) on Long Island’s Gold Coast, where the old gods of industry constructed their marvelous mansions. Goodman’s chops as the op-ed editor for Cosmopolitan Magazine are on very good display as she describes the lifestyles of the teenaged one percent. In many ways, They Wish They Were Us reads like something F. Scott Fitzgerald might have written if he’d set out to tackle the 21st century world of excess as enjoyed by New York’s most privileged young adults—a world where rich kids can buy drugs and liquor like water and where their parents’ palatial homes are available at a moment’s notice for wild and ruinous pops or parties.
3. They Wish They Were Us does a poignant if not novel job of addressing such concepts as sexism, structural racism, and the moral responsibility that should accompany status. The delivery of the message isn’t as strong as it could’ve been, and it definitely presents at times like a hypocritical do-as-I-say-not-as-I’ve-done sermon preached by the haves to the haves-not. But it is there, and it is solid enough food for thought.
Now, the bad:
1. I REALLY disliked the abundant profanity, substance abuse, and casual approach to sex by almost every named individual in the book. To be fair, those things did serve a somewhat critical purpose, arguing against themselves while satirizing the stark irresponsibility that often defines the most privileged among us. Still, the writing, the language, and the themes of They Wish They Were Us are inappropriate for all but the most mature audiences. Despite being marketed as a YA book enjoyable by teens between ages fourteen and eighteen, this book probably shouldn’t be read by kids below age eighteen.
2. The mystery, which was neither very good nor very memorable, came together like basic fare for the subgenre of boarding school murder stories. A goodish person dies, the wrong person is accused, the right person is someone close to the main protagonist, dark secrets about the victim and the protagonist and other friends come out, and the mystery’s ultimate solution causes the protagonist to reevaluate life goals in some major way.
A part of what made this mystery rather bland was the lack of solid characterization for most main characters. Jill is just about the only one whose arc is well fleshed out, and it’s telling that most other main characters don’t even get last names. Others who do get such an honor are given obvious and uncomplicated arcs. This not only makes it hard to care about most characters who aren’t Jill but also makes it pretty easy to guess the identity of Shaila’s murderer pretty early on. Once the reader understands that Shaila was probably murdered by someone of her own age range, there’s only one character besides Jill who’s even been given enough backstory to prop up a potential motive for murder.
3. The time jumps were a massive turn-off for me. They Wish They Were Us basically unfolds over the course of Jill’s senior year, darting in and out of various periods within that window while also shoving in flashbacks to Jill’s freshman year with Shaila. Most chapters are separated by days to weeks to months, creating a situation in which many interesting plot points get resolved off-page in manners that are later told versus shown. And while most main story beats (like the mystery of Shaila’s murder, the friendship between Jill and Nikki, and Jill’s internal drive to be good enough) get a proper resolution, several others either get rushed wrap-ups or are simply left dangling.
4. The ending wasn’t as satisfying or redemptive as it should have been, and it felt like several developmental steps were skipped on the way there.
Once Shaila’s true murderer was caught and Graham exonerated, virtually no time was spent navigating the fallout. Most of Jill’s friends were apathetic or hostile regarding her pursuit of Graham’s potential innocence from the start, and it would’ve been nice to see how they handled the reveal. Shaila’s murderer’s family had been very close to Jill’s for years, and it would’ve been nice to see some hint as to how that dynamic would play out moving forward. Graham’s family, Shaila’s family, and most of the Gold Coast Prep community were deeply scarred by Shaila’s murder; so I would’ve appreciated more focus on how they all processed the truth in the end, especially given the strong opinions expressed by many of them regarding the murder throughout the book.
The actual ending centered on Nikki’s decision to dissolve The Players, a reconciliation between Jill and several friends with whom she’d burned bridges because of her frustration with their elitism, and a decision by Jill to not attend her dream college so as to start fresh without the legacy of The Players there to taint her new beginning. On paper, that sounds like a satisfying conclusion demonstrating Nikki’s maturation, the strength of Jill’s friendships, and Jill’s strength of character in realizing that she is both strong and good enough without The Players. In practice, though, it fell a little flat because the groundwork hadn’t been lain for much of it.
Jill’s reconciliation with several of her friends (particularly an ex-boyfriend), for example, seemed to come out of nowhere, with no real in-story buildup. Meanwhile, Nikki’s decision to end The Players and the way in which most of Jill’s other Player friends jumped on the bandwagon just didn’t ring true. Most of those people had been fighting at least tacitly against exercising that sort of responsibility throughout the entire book, and it didn’t seem like enough had changed for them by the end to justify their shifted perspectives.
I’m guessing that Jessica Goodman wanted to end the novel with a hopeful twist, but it likely would’ve landed more saliently had it been given more time to simmer or if most of the characters involved had gone through a bit more development in that direction.
And the nitpicky:
* Basically the entire Gold Coast community knows that Players cheat their way through high school, force underclassman initiates through dangerous and illegal hazing rituals, and regularly partake in substance abuse. I’m well accustomed to how shamefully easy it is for rich white people to get away with that sort of thing, and I get that most high school kids don’t want to snitch and risk losing status with the cool kids. But STILL. I had to suspend ALL the disbelief to find it credible that NO ONE has yet chosen to blow the whistle on The Players, publicize what they do, or penalize any of them. Then I had to suspend even MORE to believe that NO underclassmen initiates ever told their parents or teachers about the insane tasks that upperclassmen Players were forcing upon them.
* It’s mentioned at least twice that Graham stands to be transferred to “New York Federal Prison” upon his eighteenth birthday. For one thing, no such prison exists—nor do I think one did when Goodman was writing this novel. For another, it’s unlikely that one kid who murdered another in the way that Shaila’s murderer did her would be facing transfer to any federal prison, since the case likely wouldn’t fall under federal jurisdiction. Graham would way more likely be facing transfer to a STATE prison facility when his time came.
• BRASS TACKS •
This book is a well-written affair with an interesting premise and a reasonably solid character arc for the main protagonist. But its execution lags in several critical areas, the overall story is rather unoriginal, and the ending doesn’t feel like a very solid payoff. Another passable hair-salon or DMV-line read.
• MY RATING •
I give Jessica Goodman’s They Wish They Were Us two and a half cronuts out of five.