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Book Review: I’ll Be You by Janelle Brown

Image of a digital book cover. There is a beautiful sunset behind a desert plant.

Summary:
Two identical twin sisters and former child actors have grown apart—until one disappears, and the other is forced to confront the secrets they’ve kept from each other.

Review:
I previously read Janelle Brown’s Pretty Things and really enjoyed its delightful thriller take on Instagram influencers. I was excited to see another of her books on NetGalley and even more excited to see it using a child star identical twins plot. I smashed that request button, let me tell you, and this did not disappoint. In fact, between the two sisters, it covered two of my other favorite plots – a person with addiction in recovery and a person falling for a cult.

Imagine if the Olsen twins were identical (they’re not) and had a falling out right after they stopped acting. That’s the basic set-up of this book. Sam continues to try to act and also continues to fall into a hole of addiction. Elli pursues a regular life, going to college, setting up a florist business, and marrying. We find this all out in flashbacks, as the book starts with a bang with Sam, who we quickly find out is just past a year in recovery, getting a phone call from her parents to come help take care of her niece. Elli brought her newly adopted toddler daughter to them to go on a quick spa retreat in Ojai, but is gone longer than expected. Sam is shocked by all of this because she and Elli haven’t spoken in over a year for ominous reasons we don’t know yet.

I loved this book. I was immediately enamored with Sam. What a tough situation to get plopped in your lap just over a year into recovery. She suspects something is amiss with Ellie, but Ellie has always been the stable one and Sam the untrustworthy addict, so her parents don’t take her concerns seriously. But we, the readers, quickly see that Sam is likely right. There’s something fishy going on. Why would Ellie and her husband suddenly separate right when they adopt after years of infertility? How likely is it that a woman who struggled with infertility for years would suddenly disappear to a retreat for more than a week, barely speaking to those caring for her long hoped-for daughter? Why won’t Sam and Elli’s mom and dad admit something is off? There’s a lot of delicious suspense immediately.

Most of the beginning of the book is from Sam’s perspective, but partway through we swap to Elli’s. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this, because I was so invested in Sam, but it worked. Eventually, we swap back to Sam’s toward the end. Sam’s characterization is just so strong and relatable to me, whereas Elli’s is a more difficult character for me to relate to. But the reason it worked is Sam needs to come to understand Elli and so, getting inside Elli’s head and perspective helped me see that, so that I started to root for Sam’s attempts to rebond with Elli in a way I hadn’t before.

The only reason this is getting four stars and not five from me is because of one scene where a secondary lesbian character is biphobic. It was hurtful to me to read that scene, and I just didn’t think it was necessary to the plot of the book. I’m ok with characters being imperfect when it serves needs of character and plot development, but the exact same plot device could have worked without the biphobia. (Essentially, this character exacts revenge on her ex-wife. While the revenge is spurred on by multiple things the ex-wife did, the tipping point is that she got together with a man after the divorce, and the character is extra upset because it’s a man and she’d “hid” being bisexual from her. Ick. We could have just….had something else be the tipping point. There are plenty of options. An example of biphobia I would have been ok with seeing would have been if Sam and Elli’s big fight was about one of them being bisexual and the other not being able to handle it. That’s important character development. This wasn’t.)

Overall, this was a fun, different read with a main character I really enjoyed and a different take on some common thriller plot devices. I recommend it, and I think I myself might go back and read more of Janelle Brown’s back catalog.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Cover of the book "The Good Sister."

Summary:
Fern and Rose are fraternal twins. Rose is smart, driven, and Fern’s protector. Fern doesn’t understand the world and so Rose has protected her, ever since they were small. For example, Fern didn’t understand that they spent every day in the library one year when they were little because they were homeless. Just one example of the many ways their mother failed them. In fact, Fern even became a librarian, she remembered that year so fondly. It’s a good thing she has Rose. When Rose struggles with infertility with her husband, Fern hatches a plan to repay Rose for being such a good sister. She’ll get pregnant and give the baby to her. But of course, not everything goes according to plan.

Review:
Sally Hepworth writes psychological thrillers starring casts of women in Australia. Sometimes they feature larger casts of women and other times it’s a couple of women pitted against each other. This is mostly the latter category.

I had my suspicions about the mystery early but thought that must not be it because it was so simplistic. I am sorry to report – it was indeed it. Some psychological thrillers lean a bit too heavily on the trope of – one person in this world is “crazy!” and did unpredictable “crazy!” things and there is no helping them because they are just so “crazy!” so let’s lock them up. I’m not a big fan of this trope for two reasons: 1) people are more complex than that 2) it’s a bit of a cheat to the reader because then things can happen that are unpredictable and make no sense. However, I get it that it’s a trope in psychological thrillers and am usually willing to give it a bit of a pass. In this case, however, the reader is told this character probably has Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. There’s a character who has told their therapist all about them, and that therapist hypothesizes that this character might have one of these two illnesses. Everyone else in the book just accepts this and moves on. I am not saying people with these personality disorders never do bad things or hurt others, but the same can be said of all types of people. Plus, the character’s actions aren’t made out to be about them as a person but rather a symptom of their illness. It reminds me of how Schizophrenia used to be treated in literature. This character doesn’t even get the decency of having the state investigate their mental health or a clear diagnosis. It both unnecessarily maligns two of the most maligned types of mental illnesses and creates an entirely two-dimensional character.

Then there’s the representation of Autism. From the beginning, it’s clear that Fern is Autistic (I am not using person-first language as many in the Autistic community prefer claiming the word as a part of who they are, rather than as an illness), but she is depicted in such a stereotypical way that it hurt to read. For example, constantly bringing up how she doesn’t like to look people in the eyes and belaboring the point at random times when she might make eye contact. Her sensory episodes felt as if they were written by someone outside of her body rather than by her – problematic since it was written in the first person. The whole first half of the book has a lot of anti-Autistic sentiment, including wondering whether or not Fern could actually be capable of raising a baby. Are these reversed at the end of the book? Somewhat. But to me the damage is done by wondering about it in the first half.

So why am I still giving this book three stars? I have to admit that it was a page turner – I had to know what happened to Fern and the baby growing inside her. I couldn’t stop reading until I knew. The energy of must-find-out that is needed in a thriller was there, even if I was disappointed by the characterization, representation, and ultimately found the solution to be a bit flat.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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