Book Review: AN ANONYMOUS GIRL, a psychological experiment gone awry

Hendricks and Pekkanen - An Anonymous Girl 5 editedAn Anonymous Girl
by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Make-up artist Jessica Ferris is burdened with secrets. Instead of working in theater, as she told her family, she’s making her living doing in-home makeovers with BeautyBuzz. She can’t bear to disappoint her parents. But she’s had practice keeping secrets for much longer. . . .

When she learns of a psychological study about ethics that pays participants $500 dollars, Jess doesn’t think twice before attending a research session that was originally scheduled for one of her make-up clients. Ben Quick, research assistant to Dr. Shields, who is running the study, escorts Jess into an empty classroom where she’s asked to respond to a series of questions about lying. To some extent, Jess feels liberated by the exercise and eagerly attends a second session the next day.

Something about Jess comes through in her responses, and Dr. Shields invites her to join a more extensive, less conventional offshoot of the study that challenges ethics in real-world settings. Jess just learned that her father was laid off from his job selling insurance and decided to agree; she also began to see Dr. Shields as a sympathetic confidant.

Over time, Dr. Shields pushes Jess to perform questionable behaviors in service of her study, and Jess, though at time uncomfortable with what Dr. Shields wants her to do, acquiesces in the face of Dr. Shields’ authority–and the large payments she is getting to participate.

But as Dr. Shields learns more about Jess and puts her in increasingly compromising and dangerous position, Jess begins to wonder how much she can trust the doctor. As she tries to uncover the layers, Dr. Shields uses manipulation and deflection to further ensnare Jess until Jess’s very life is at stake.

An Anonymous Girl is told through the shifting perspectives of Jessica and Dr. Shields. Dr. Shields’ sections are written in second person, present tense, passive voice. While I understand Hendricks and Pekkanen likely made the stylistic choice to emphasize Dr. Shield’s distancing from the study, these sections were unpleasant to read. Writers guides advise to write in active voice for a very good reason.

The authors show that they are familiar with some psychological phenomenon: they mention the Hawthorne Effect and the Prisoner’s Dilemma which provide some grounding for the book and lend authority to Dr. Shields. At the same time, there is a decided lack of awareness regarding informed consent in psychological research studies or about research design, in which the hypotheses and research methods are set well in advance of data collection and don’t change. Dr. Shields’ unconventional methods and lack of adherence to commonly accepted precepts might provide some characterization but they also strain credulity.

It’s also hard to believe that Jess would capitulate to Dr. Shields’ demands. Dr. Shield is presented as charismatic and cunning, but still! Jess, though, is a scrappy character if slightly inconsistent, and she has a profession I’ve not seen in a novel before. At times, though, her inner voice was astute and polished while her dialogue with other characters was choppy and unsophisticated, and the contrast was jarring.

Beyond the standard psychological thriller plotting, An Anonymous Girl also incorporates themes of guilt, revenge, making assumptions, and obedience (though they missed the opportunity to reference the Milgram obedience studies). The added interest these themes provides somewhat offsets the stylistic shortcomings and questionable characterizations, making the book a good choice for a plane trip.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.