“The girls are all so nice here,” Wesleyan University students write in their letters home to their families. And it’s certainly true for some of the girls, who do form lifelong friendships and look out for each other. But it’s certainly not the case for the novel‘s narrator Ambrosia “Amb” Wellington, whose desperation to escape her small town roots leads her to team up with Sloane “Sully” Sullivan, a cruel girl who plays with her classmates’ desires and weak points for her own amusement.
Their friendship’s schemes come to a head when Amb has a meet-cute with Kevin, the long-time boyfriend of Amb’s too-nice, too-trusting roommate Flora. Amb decides she and Kevin are better suited for each other, and Sully helps her plan how to win him for herself. Later in the novel, Amb reflects,
Because it was never just about the boy. It was about the girl standing in the way of the boy. Maybe it had been about her the entire time. [66%]
Indeed, Amb’s fighting for Kevin has less to do with her actual attraction for the boy than with her desire to tear Flora down for being too perfect. The scheme goes horribly, tragically wrong. Fast forward to Amb and Sully’s ten-year college reunion, and an invitation to the reunion comes with the mysterious card in the mail that says “You need to come. We need to talk about what we did that night.” The novel is told in alternating chapters, from Amb’s time in college and her time at the ten-year reunion with her husband Adrian, both storylines coming to a head with a reckoning for what Amb and Sully did all those years before.
The Girls Are All So Nice Here is dark, and not in a gleeful, Gone Girl kind of way, where the horrible heroine is so charismatic that you can’t help but be drawn into her orbit. Rather, the novel just feels bleak, Amb’s downward spiral in college, from spite to cruelty to whatever lies beyond that, is hard to stomach. Her friendship with Sully is just plain toxic, and even though we’re in Amb’s head for pretty much the entire novel, it’s hard to truly feel sympathy for her.
That being said, it’s hard to wish for her to be punished either. The author sows just enough doubt throughout the novel that we don’t actually find out what happened until later in the book, and even then, it’s tough to know just how complicit Amb actually is in what happened. Her present-day struggles with her husband Adrian straddles an equally delicate line where she’s so miserable in her life that it’s hard to hate her, but Adrian’s also so nice and she’s treating him so shoddily that it’s hard to sympathize with her either.
I read the book pretty quickly. It’s a taut, exciting page turner, and the mysteries, with all the twists, turns, and revelations, kept me hooked from beginning to end. Flynn is a good writer, and there’s no doubt she crafted a really good thriller.
But the book is bleak. We do get a big reveal at the end, and a kind of justice, but by that point, all the major players are just so toxic and consumed by hatred that it’s hard to cheer them on, or feel any sort of release.
Amb’s roommate Flora is depicted as a too-sweet, too-nice person who wholeheartedly trusts people and considers Amb her best friend, despite all the crap Amb says and does behind her back. In a way, she is the nicest of the girls, and there are parts where the book seems to show us that Amb is wrong in her assessment of Flora. Despite her niceness, Flora is a regular girl, not some perfect paragon, and her kindness means something important to their other classmates. It’s what many of the other characters seem to believe, and certainly what I want to hold on to.
But ultimately, and to me, sadly, the book seems to embrace Amb and Sully’s more cynical outlook of the world. “She’ll have me to help her grow the armor she’ll need,” a character thinks about a baby girl at one point in the novel. “I’ll make damn sure she wears it.” It’s a heart-breaking sentiment to have to think about a three-month-old child, but that’s the point the book seems to hammer into us throughout, and the thought it leaves behind when we turn the final page.
It’s a good book. Just: take some time to care for yourself after reading it.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.