Long Held Secrets Simmer Between Two Childhood Friends In This Excerpt From Before They Were Innocent

Books Features Ella Berman
Long Held Secrets Simmer Between Two Childhood Friends In This Excerpt From Before They Were Innocent

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a group of teenage girls heads off on an unsupervised trip to some beautiful foreign location, almost anything can happen. I mean, just look at The White Lotus. Nine times out of ten, no one is making good choices. And as evidenced in Ella Berman’s latest novel Before They Were Innocent, sometimes the consequences follow you home.

A story of class divides, personality differences, and the very particular jealousy that often goes hand in hand with intense female friendships, Before They Were Innocent follows Bess, Joni, and Evangeline, three California students who head to Greece as part of a graduation present after their senior year. But only two of them come back alive. Evangeline dies in a fall, and rumors swirl about whether her friends were involved. Though neither Joni nor Bess are officially charged with a crime, they are certainly found guilty in the court of public opinion, and the notoriety follows them for the next decade of their lives. 

But when Joni shows up at unannounced Bess’s door with a connection to a crime that bears some uncomfortable similarities to their friend’s death, they’ll be forced to revisit everything that happened.

Here’s how the publisher describes the story. 

Ten years ago, after a sun-soaked summer spent in Greece, best friends Bess and Joni were cleared of having any involvement in their friend Evangeline’s death. But that didn’t stop the media from ripping apart their teenage lives like vultures.

While the girls were never convicted, Joni, ever the opportunist, capitalized on her newfound infamy to become a motivational speaker. Bess, on the other hand, resolved to make her life as small and controlled as possible so she wouldn’t risk losing everything all over again. And it almost worked. . . .

Except now Joni is tangled up in a crime eerily similar to that one fateful night in Greece. And when she asks Bess to come back to LA to support her, Bess has a decision to make.

Is it finally time to face up to what happened that night, exposing herself as the young woman she once was and maybe still is? And what happens if she doesn’t like what she finds?

Before We Were Innocent arrived on shelves this week, but we’ve got an exclusive excerpt to give you a taste of what the story’s like. 




I lead Joni into the kitchen, walking carefully around the saguaro cactus that shoots through the center of my house like a missile, causing the tiles around it to crack and cave. When I look down, I realize I’m wearing the humiliating pair of bunny slippers my ex-boyfriend Ivan gave me as a birthday present, and I wonder if I can slip them off before Joni notices.

“You are aware you have a strikingly phallic cactus,” she says, more at ease now, “in the middle of your house.” 

“I had noticed,” I say as I open the fridge. “Do you want some water?”

Joni frowns. “I’d prefer wine.” 

I rifle through the cupboard under the sink, coming up with a bottle of California chardonnay that Ivan must have bought be- fore he decided I was unsalvageable. It has to be a shitty bottle for him to have left it behind, considering he unscrewed all the halogen lightbulbs on his way out.

 I pour two glasses, watching as Joni takes in the surroundings— the slate gray blinds pulled down; the peeling shiplap walls and mismatched furniture; the stark print of sunflowers hanging on

the wall above the TV, an image so bland that my brother once asked if it came with the frame. If I see a flicker of approval on Joni’s face, I think I know why—my home is the diametric opposite of the Calabasas McMansions we both grew up in, with their acute angles and surfaces designed so that you can never quite escape your own reflection, because why would you want to when you’ve spent thousands of dollars on treatments to not only maintain but elevate your own face?

 “You live here alone,” Joni says.

“Does that surprise you?” I ask, leaning against the cabinet, waiting for her to tell me what she wants from me. Nine years ago, I spent my dead grandmother’s inheritance on this cabin beneath the San Jacinto Mountains precisely because of its isolation—so that people from my past wouldn’t just show up one day because they were “in the area.”

“Are you off the grid?” she says instead. “Are you generating energy from compost or something?”


“I’m just trying to understand,” she says.

“Why are you here?”

Joni nods and takes another sip of wine. “It’s my fiancée,” she says. “Willa.”

“Your fiancée,” I repeat, even though I already know that “Willa” is Willa Bailey, semifamous influencer and activist—information I have gleaned from Joni’s Instagram account, which I follow from an anonymous burner profile: @pizzancacti23. I can already picture Willa’s face in my mind as clearly as I can any celebrity’s—wide easy smile and thick, expressive brows that tend to cave inward when she talks, like the Sad Sam dog I kept stuffed down the side of my bed for the duration of my teenage years—but I would never give Joni the satisfaction of knowing it.

“Trouble in paradise?” I ask

“I guess you could put it that way,” Joni says carefully, and it throws me. Is Joni careful now? Does she deliberate over each perfect word instead of letting them fly out of her mouth like a swarm of wasps? 

I watch as she bites down on her lip, hard.

“A few weeks ago, Willa found out that I slept with someone else,” she says after a long pause. “And, while I promised her it was a one-night thing, it wasn’t exactly as simple as that . . .”

“You’re still cheating on her,” I say. 

“I didn’t say that,” Joni snaps back like a snake before she catches herself, smiling a little.

“I may have been keeping a door open that I should have closed,” she says, and I don’t know why I’m surprised at how little she’s changed.

“But, earlier tonight, Willa found a . . . photo that this person, Zoey, sent me, and I knew that it had to stop. So, I drove over to Zoey’s apartment and I ended it. For real this time.” 

I stare at her, still unsure exactly what she wants from me. The Joni I knew always owned her choices unequivocally; surely she doesn’t need me to tell her that she’s a good person, that Willa probably doesn’t deserve better, that she’s only human despite all the praise and fervor and adulation claiming otherwise in the years since we were friends.

“The thing is, Willa thinks I came straight here,” Joni says. “To give her some space.”

“And why would she believe that?”

“Because every time I was with Zoey, Willa thought I was with you,” Joni says levelly. “I told her we were planning something to mark the tenth anniversary. A celebration of Evangeline’s life, since we obviously didn’t make it to her funeral.”

I swallow, wishing I hadn’t asked, because what would a celebration of Ev’s life even look like now? The only people we could invite would be other ghosts from our past—people Evangeline would also have been destined to outgrow and forget existed had she made it past her nineteenth birthday; people who had never really known her anyway, not like we had.

“But, Bess. If Willa finds out I lied to her, it won’t be good.” 

“It won’t be good,” I repeat. “Because . . . ?”

Because I have the biggest month of my career coming up,” Joni says. “Because everything I’ve ever done has been building toward this moment, my book release, and for someone who has built a career on radical honesty and authenticity, this secret liaison isn’t exactly a great look for me.”

Everything I’ve ever done. Funny how this book, this pinnacle of Joni’s career, happens to land on the ten-year-anniversary summer of the incident that made her infamous, I think, fighting a swell of resentment. Her MO is self-help, only Joni never calls it that. In her posts, it’s always self-growth and personal development, as if it’s never too late to overhaul your disappointing personality.

“Not because you love Willa, though,” I say. “What, did you just get bored of her?”

Joni glares at me.

“Bess, I don’t want to go into the minutiae of my relationship with you right now, I’m just asking for your help.”

For a split second, I am blindsided that, once again, Joni has built a life worth lying for to protect.

“You haven’t actually told me what you want me to do,” I say, even though by this point, I already know.

“If anyone asks, I left my house around six and got here at nine p.m.,” Joni says slowly, scanning the kitchen and landing on the dirty pan still sitting on my stovetop, a telltale strand of anemic spaghetti hanging over the edge. “You made pasta, and then we sat in the kitchen drinking this bottle of wine and catching up about the past. It’s three hours, Bess. What difference does it make to your life?”

I think of all the ways I could say no to Joni. I could tell her how horrified I am that she would ask me this—that after ten years, I would be the person she canvasses to lie for her, even after everything we’ve been through. I could remind her of how badly she’d betrayed me the last time we saw each other, how much we’d wanted to hurt each other back then, and how stunningly we succeeded. I could tell her about my life as it is now—how I’ve worked to tread lightly, to leave little trace of myself, to forget all the things we did and didn’t do, constructing a new identity based on my actions rather than my instincts, and how Joni turning up and asking for this will disrupt everything all over again because I didn’t leave space for anyone else in my life, but least of all her.

“Why did you do it?” I ask quietly, and Joni’s eyes flash with fury.

“You’re not listening to me,” she says, speaking slowly as if I’m being willfully stupid. “I would have thought that you, more than anyone, wouldn’t question me.”

I swallow a rising lump at the back of my throat.

The problem is, Joni has always known who I am. And that’s exactly why she’s back.

Excerpted from BEFORE WE WERE INNOCENT by Ella Berman, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023</i>

Before We Were Innocent is available now from Berkley

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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