Author Ruth Ware is known for her breathless psychological thrillers that take place in fabulous settings that range from a rustic French ski chalet to a decadent cruise ship. As a result, her latest novel, The It Girl, may feel a bit like a departure from her familiar form. It features a less luxurious setting—it takes place in the dorms of Oxford University and the streets of present-day Edinburgh—and though the story is full of real tension, most of it isn’t of the life and death variety. After all, the dead woman in this tale died more than a decade prior to the events of the story and life has moved on. (Mostly, anyway.)
Yet, the mystery at the heart of The It Girl is as propulsive as any of her other stories, thanks to Ware’s deft use of two alternating timelines to both push the narrative forward and flesh out the life of the dead girl at its center. The constantly shifting time periods—one in which we edge closer to April’s inevitable murder over the course of the students’ first year and one in which we slowly step closer to finally solving it a decade later—are inextricably intertwined in such a way that they build organically toward a dramatic and explosive final confrontation. (Your mileage may and likely will vary on whether the denouement of all this is actually too big for the story that Ware is telling, with its complicated betrayals and violence, but it’s certainly impossible to look away from.)
The height of summer is peak pool season (or beach depending on where you live) and in many ways, The It Girl feels as though it was assembled in a lab to be read on a lounge chair over the course of a long afternoon. Yes, its central mystery may not be as complicated as some of Ware’s other efforts, the realistic character work, and compulsively readable prose will be enough to draw anyone into the story and keep them there.
The story follows Hannah Jones, whose roommate was murdered when she was a student at Oxford. April Clarke-Cliveden was the first person Hannah met when she arrived at Pelham College and the two became best friends despite their differences in temperament, study habits, and social class. Their life together at school was almost ridiculously picturesque—weird traditions, late-night papers, and members-only drinking clubs—alongside their inner circle of friends Emily Lippmann, Ryan Coates, Hugh Bland, and Will de Chastaigne.
But when Hannah comes home from a party to find her friend strangled to death, their world shatters. She suspects John Neville, a creepy school porter she’s had several uncomfortable run-ins with over the course of the term and who Hannah saw leaving their building staircase immediately before discovering April’s body.
Ware divides her story into “before” and “after” segments—one that recounts Hannah’s experience at Pelham College and another that follows the events of her life nearly a decade later when she’s married to Will and pregnant with their first child. Then, Neville dies in prison, and Hannah is contacted by a reporter working on a true crime story about his death, who’s convinced that the authorities (and, by extension, Hannah) got it wrong. Hannah, tormented by the idea that she might have sent an innocent man to prison to die, begins to dig back into the past to see if she can finally figure out what really happened that night.
Despite Will’s objections, Hannah seeks out Hugh, Emily, and Ryan to pick through their memories of precisely what happened to them all that year. But their memories call almost everything she thought she knew about April and her death into question. And Hannah’s obsession with April’s true fate becomes so severe that it begins to negatively impact both her health and her marriage, but in her mind, she can’t rest until she finds out the truth.
April, the titular It Girl, is, unfortunately, the least developed character in the novel, a poor little rich girl with daddy issues who is sort of bitchy to her friends for no discernable reason and sadly memorable in the world of the story only for the horrible way she died. While Hannah, Will, and the other characters are certainly left haunted both by the hole April’s death punched in their lives and the media frenzy that followed them for years afterward, the story isn’t great at showing us what she truly meant to any of them in life. (In fact, most of them—even Hannah, at times—didn’t actually seem to like her that much.)
Ware is particularly talented at making it seem as though virtually any character we meet at any point in the story could be a suspect—or at least have a fairly believable motivation for either wanting April dead or to cover up what really happened to her. But the story isn’t a breathless page-turner like some of the author’s other work. Instead, The It Girl deftly delves into the lingering effects of trauma and survivors’ guilt, showing us the ways that one girl’s death forever has forever changed those who knew her, the people they ultimately grew up to become, and the connections between them all.
Hannah’s emotional state is particularly multi-faceted, as she grieves the loss of a best friend and questions her own judgment in accusing Neville of killing her. Plus, she married April’s ex-boyfriend, which adds another layer of weirdness on top of everything else that the novel only barely begins to scratch the surface of. Perhaps because of the need to leave him a viable potential suspect for April’s murder—I mean, the boyfriend’s always the first person the police look at for a reason—the novel often holds Will at some distance from readers, and it’s difficult to ever really feel like we know him. (There’s a lot of telling readers how much he and Hannah love one another and not much showing of it.)
In the end, The It Girl is a generally satisfying, if not particularly memorable, thriller. When the pieces finally come together, they make perfect sense (even though you’ll have likely assumed a different person killed April at least twice before the final reveal). A compulsively readable diversion even if it packs slightly less of a narrative punch than some of its predecessors.
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.