Book Review: ONE OF US IS LYING by Karen M. McManus

one of us blurb.pngThe first thing I did when I finished this book was google “One of Us Is Lying TV Series” because I need that in my life immediately.

The good news: E! has announced development of a series based on the YA mystery under Universal Cable Productions.

The bad news: the show is still in the very earliest stages of development, with no word on a release date, casting, or even the screenwriter yet.

Ah, well. It’s important to have things to look forward to, I suppose.

This is one of those novels that feels made for television, for better or worse. Please, can I have just eight or ten episodes of this instead of another season of 13 Reasons Why? Please?

“It’s a great story: four good-looking, high-profile students all being investigated for murder. And nobody’s what they seem.”

One of Us Is Lying cover
(link to goodreads)

         I was drawn to this book mostly because of its general popularity. I hadn’t been hearing about it from friends or other blogs, but I kept seeing it cover-out in bookstores and on library shelves. As of this writing, One of Us Is Lying, Karen McManus’ debut, just passes the one year mark as an NYT YA hardcover bestseller and is holding steady at number 5, which is pretty incredible for a book of this kind from a debut author. The only book on the list right now that’s been there longer is Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. With a film adaptation starring Amandla Sternberg set for release in a few months, THUG shows no signs of relinquishing its position as number one.

         What didn’t draw me to the book was the blurb hook: “Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars.” That just makes it sound like “generic high school clichés meet currently popular tone.” I was very happy that OoUIL (does anyone abbreviate it? Because that looks terrible) is much more than that.

         Yes, we begin our story in detention with a jock, a brain, a criminal, a princess, and a slightly less easy-to-define gossipy outcast.

         Imagine the John Hughes movie, but the Ally Sheedy character knows everybody’s business and then dies 10 minutes in.

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         That’s basically what happens.

         Simon, who runs a notorious gossip app, dies of a severe allergic reaction to a cup of water poisoned with peanut oil. Four well-known students, the only people in the room with Simon when it happened, are suddenly the objects of not only the entire school’s attention but also an impending murder investigation.

“I guess we’re almost friends now, or as friendly as you can get when you’re not one hundred percent sure the other person isn’t framing you for murder.”

         There’s certainly a lot of fun to be had with the slowly-unfurling mystery of what, exactly, happened to Simon, what those four students had to do with it, and what everyone is hiding.

One of Us Is Lying international cover
International cover

         But that isn’t really what the book is about, and McManus seems to have wisely put most of her energy into carefully crafting character relationships that are formed and re-formed by a tumultuous, rumor-filled few months.

         This is *very slightly spoilerish,* but it’s worth pointing out that the real mystery is slightly different from the whodunit I expected from the description. The book is written in the first person and rotates among the four primary characters. This means you’re in their heads during and after Simon’s death and therefore know for sure that none of them killed Simon. It’s interesting to think about how the book would have been different if written in third person in such a way that kept us guessing about the guilt of the four protagonists.

         I don’t think this is a fault of the book at all—it’s just a very deliberate choice McManus made that determined much of the novel’s direction. Rather than thinking one of them is lying, it’s one of us is lying. The book is about the experience of being one of these four teenagers suddenly thrust into a highly unpleasant spotlight—and into a small band of misfit murder suspects. These four students from different worlds forge a dark, high-stakes version of the breakfast club, needing to rely on each other even though they aren’t sure they can trust one another.

Two Can Keep a Secret cover
McManus’ second YA novel, set for release in 2019, is being branded very similarly.

         The relationships forged by this period of uncertainty and betrayal and regret are some of the most interesting I’ve seen in YA contemporary. Often, a book of this length only develops one or two relationships this fresh and layered, but One of Us Is Lying boasts a couple good handful of compelling relationships between friends, enemies, family members, and romantic interests.

         One of Us Is Lying is about public perception, trust, and what (or who) you rely on when your world falls apart. It’s a mystery-thriller that lives up to that genre title, keeping up the suspense while exploring deeply flawed characters that I still wanted to see succeed. It’s an interesting, engaging four-star read.

         It’s also, at times, quite a dark story. The book does begin with a dead teenager, so I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the story dips into some pretty serious topics. I don’t give age recommendations, but this book is certainly towards the more mature end of the very long YA swimming pool.

         I’m going to finish with a couple content warnings here, all of which are basically spoilers:

  • Homophobia; closeted sexuality; nonconsensual outing
  • Suicide; depression; alcoholism; bipolar disorder; drug use
  • Discussion of school shootings and mass violence
  • Emotionally abusive/controlling relationship; infidelity
  • No sex scenes, but sexual relationships are discussed, and at least one POV character is sexually active

What did you think of One of Us Is Lying? How does it compare to other contemporary mysteries and thrillers?

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