The Lying Game

Remember when you were a teenager and your biggest thrills came from playing hilarious practical jokes on anyone and everyone you had ever met? You know, like convincing a girl that a murder had been committed in front of her locker, and reporting to the police that a baby was abandoned in a dumpster? Remember what a riot it was when you rubbed it in everyone’s stupid panic-stricken face and urine-soaked pants that you had totally fooled them? …No? Well, if you weren’t a teenage sociopath, don’t worry: you can experience all the fun vicariously in Sara Shepard’s The Lying Game, the first in a YA series inspired by those high-schoolers who thought Mean Girls was an instructional video.

I’m no longer a teenager, so I might not be as hip and with it, but it seems that if you’re not into vampires and werewolves, you’re probably all about selfish, upper middle class girls who get their jollies from inflicting pain on others. True, in The Lying Game, as well as in Shepard’s other popular series, Pretty Little Liars, the meanest mean girl always gets hers (disturbingly enough, by being murdered), and the other girls—mere followers—are, alone, never as keen on the treachery. But that doesn’t mean that they’re innocent. In fact, in this book, the evidence seems to suggest that one or all of them may have been responsible for sacrificing their queen bee. Which means…well, if you’re reading it, maybe you’re not so innocent yourself. These types of books aren’t so much cautionary tales as they are dark fantasies, a chance for readers to indulge the desire to play their own pretty little lying game. Basically, if you want to be a “good girl,” read Jane Eyre or something.

The Lying Game—and its ilk—is fashionable but disposable. The girls wear $200 jeans and listen to Katy Perry on the radio. In three years, 90% of its references will be obsolete, but for the moment it feels completely relevant. I suppose for the right audience—that is, not 24-year-old grad students who host knitting get-togethers—the situations are actually somewhat relatable. The girls shop at the mall, sneak swigs of stolen alcohol, and schedule spa days together. They’re just like their teen readers, only more glamorous…and way more secretive. The secrets and scandal are what really make the book appealing. This is no character study, but it doesn’t need to be; it succeeds for what it is: a quick, compulsively readable guilty pleasure with plenty of high school melodrama.

The plot, an overwrought absurdity that shouldn’t work, is as follows: Sutton and Emma are twins separated at birth who grow up unaware of each other’s existence. While Emma is placed in a series of foster homes in Nevada, Sutton leads a charmed life in Arizona, having been adopted as an infant by a loving and well-to-do family. Just weeks before her 18th birthday, and the arrival of her legal freedom, Emma is set up by her future sex offender foster brother, who tries to convince his mother that Emma has stolen a large sum of money from her. To prove his point, at least according to his logic, he shows both his mother and Emma a particularly gruesome, snuff film-esque YouTube video of Emma being nearly choked to death by a locket. …Only, it isn’t a confirmation of Emma’s kinky proclivities. In fact, it isn’t even Emma. This girl is Emma’s twin sister, and, what’s more, she’s dead.

We know Sutton is dead because she tells us. That’s right: Emma’s twin, who is now somehow fused to Emma’s consciousness, seeing what she sees, is narrating from beyond the grave. She is dead before the book even starts, but she has no idea when her death occurred, or how. She cannot communicate with Emma, but she desperately wishes she could when Emma emails the twin she has found through Facebook…and gets a response. This mysterious response sets off the action of the novel, in which Emma goes to Arizona to meet her sister, only to end up taking over her life. While Emma waits for Sutton to materialize, no one suspects that she is an impostor—even when she flat-out tells them this is so. Her friends, her sister—even her parents—think that Sutton has just gotten a little nicer. That, or she is up to her old “lying game” tricks, modifying her behavior as part of the prank.

The Lying Game, which is just what it sounds like, is a contrivance that further adds to the mystery of Sutton’s death. Did she die at the hands of one of her friends, due to a prank gone wrong? Did she anger the wrong person, prompting disproportionate revenge? Emma doesn’t learn the extent of Sutton’s pranks and elaborate lies, so anything is possible. Unfortunately, this is as true at the end of the book as it is at the beginning. Shepard clearly knows how to stretch out a series indefinitely, so the revelations in this first book are few. Sutton’s fleeting flashbacks all appear to add up to a single event, though of course it takes her the length of the book to recall it. Similarly, Emma’s detective work only serves to piece together this same event, making much of Shepard’s writing repetitive and unsatisfying. One of Emma’s most interesting theories, that Sutton is playing a lying game with her, is disappointingly impossible due to the narrative structure we have been given since the beginning. In short, there are a lot of possibilities with the story, but the execution is fairly lackluster.

I was impressed with this book for its ability to hold my interest, though disappointed in the way it settled for mediocrity. The mystery was compelling, and the Lying Game an interesting plot device, but the characters were too frustratingly interchangeable to make any of the action count. I was bothered by the disposable quality of the book: from it’s excessive number of contemporary references to its repetition and lack of direction, it was clearly not intended as a lasting artifact. It will be worth owning for exactly as long as it takes to release the last book in the series. No doubt, the future books will be just as entertaining as this one…but once they’re done, you won’t need to think about them ever again.

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