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.


The Good Son

The Good SonThe Good Son by You-jeong Jeong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Han Yu-Jin awakens to the smell of blood and images of a crimson umbrella, yellow streetlights, a drunk man singing, and a tarpaulin waving in the wind. He finds himself covered in blood, with bloody footprints between his bed and bedroom door. As he descends the stairs, he sees more blood, and then the petite feet of a woman who was murdered by a slash to her throat. An epileptic, Yu-jin suffers side effects from his medication and often stops taking them. He had been off his pills and the previous night had a seizure. He couldn’t remember what happened or why a woman’s body was in the apartment he shared with his mother and adopted brother, Kim Hae-jin. He reviews possible suspects: an intruder, his mother, his brother, or even himself. Desperate for answers, Yu-jin begins a search for the truth that takes him deep into his childhood and his relationship with his family.

The Good Son is a fascinating psychological thriller told by an unreliable narrator who gradually and unexpectedly uncovers the events leading up to the woman’s murder. It includes frequent flashbacks, but the present day timeline unfolds in a relatively small geographical area (mostly in the apartment with some forays into the neighborhood) and a limited cast of characters. I thought this was an interesting choice and it contributed to a sense of isolation, claustrophobia, and dread. I haven’t read many books out of South Korea, and I found the setting intriguing, particularly the cultural norms around family and obedience. Comparing a psychological thriller by a South Korean author versus one from the United States or Europe was thought-provoking.

For the most part, the writing was engaging, but I did think the author relied too much on lists of questions. A litany of questions is one of my pet peeves in novels. Personally, I find it lazy and would rather the author find a way to describe the conundrum rather than simply capture it in the form of a question.

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Sometimes I Lie

IMG_7544Sometimes I Lie

by Alice Feeney

Unable to speak or move, but aware, Amber Reynolds lies in a coma after an accident. She unravels the mystery of what brought her to the hospital through three timelines: her current state, the events immediately leading up to the incident, and a twenty-five year old diary. Complicating the narrative is a message from Amber before the story begins: My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me: 1. I’m in a coma, 2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore, 3. Sometimes I lie.

Sometimes I Lie was an enjoyable read, nothing too deep, but I was drawn into the mystery. Even though I was looking for the “trick” in the book, I was still surprised when it was revealed, though I think I probably should have been able to figure it out! I don’t want to say much more about the plot to avoid spoilers. Some of the author’s turns of phrase, such as “It took a lot of love to hate her the way I do,” I thought were well written and enhanced the book for me and elevated it above a simple mystery.

What I didn’t like was that even after finishing the book, I couldn’t get a handle on the extent of the narrator’s misdirection. Often with an unreliable narrator, I find that at the end of the story I have a sense of what is “real” and “fabricated” but here, I was as mistrusting at the end as I was at the beginning, and I wondered if I could count on anything being real in the context of the narrative. Because of that, it felt a little unsatisfying to me, like being unsteady on my feet after riding a roller coaster.

Even so, I do think that fans of Paula Hawkins, Ruth Ware, and Peter Swanson will enjoy this psychological thriller.

Publisher’s Site

Author’s Site