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Summer’s end – ‘The Lies They Tell’

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Young adult fiction means different things to different people. The very label leaves loads of room for variance and interpretation. And while there are those who look down their nose at YA fiction, the reality is that there’s plenty of nuance and sophistication to the best work in the genre.

Maine author Gillian French’s work definitely demonstrates those qualities; her latest is “The Lies They Tell” (HarperTeen, $17.99), a thriller featuring a young woman trying to get to the bottom of a tragic mystery that haunts her small island town. Secrets and lies abound even as the dynamics between the town’s wealthy summer visitors and the year-round residents who serve them grow complicated.

The town of Tenney’s Harbor on Maine’s Mount Desert Island has been a summer playground for the wealthy for generations. As with any such community, the relationship between those rich summer folks and those who live there year-round is delicate. That delicacy is laid bare one December when the Harrison family – one of the stalwart summer families, in town for a surprise holiday visit – is trapped in a horrible fire. Patriarch David, his wife Sloane, 17-year-old piano prodigy Cassidy and 10-year-old Joe all die. The family’s sole survivor – and sole heir – is teenaged Tristan.

Pearl Haskins has lived in Tenney’s Harbor her whole life. She works at the local country club, serving meals and drinks to the monied elite that wanders into town to idly while away the summer months. Her father was on watch the night of the fire – whispers of his culpability for what happened are a constant, costing him the caretaking work that was their livelihood. He seeks solace at the bottom of a bottle.

Pearl keeps her head down, working toward college and pining for a romantic relationship with her best friend Reese. But when Bridges Spencer, teen grandson of one of the town’s most prominent summer residents, takes an interest in her, she finds herself suddenly moving in a vastly different orbit than anything she has experienced before. That orbit includes Tristan, whose melancholy grief is accentuated by the shadow of suspicion that hovers over him.

Pearl is drawn to Tristan, to the power he seems to hold over Bridges and the rest of the youthful scions of wealth that summer in Tenney’s Harbor. But as she spends more time in that sphere, she finds herself wondering just what might have happened that snowy winter night. The truth is there to be found, if only she can uncover it. That truth could potentially exonerate her father, assuage his guilt … and put to rest the sad, despondent ghosts that haunt not just the Haskins family, but the entire town.

It would be a grave mistake to dismiss “The Lies They Tell” as merely YA fiction. This book isn’t “merely” anything – French is a gifted writer, a prose stylist who refuses to condescend to her targeted audience. She has written a taut, engaging thriller, one unafraid to take its time. Nothing is rushed; there are no half-measures or shortcuts taken. She allows the narrative to play out precisely as it needs to; that lack of pressure results in a gripping mystery that never once feels forced or false.

One of the book’s biggest strengths comes from its understanding of the class dynamic inherent to a town divided between summer residents and full-timers. The ecosystem of a place like MDI is a deeply complex one, packed full of eccentricities borne of time measured in generations – families serving families rather than individuals serving individuals. French really captures the passive aggression and antagonism that are the inevitable result of such a skewed distribution of power. That skewed spirit is apparent on every page of “The Lies They Tell.”

Pearl is a well-realized character, an apt representative of the “townie” who has inadvertently stumbled into a realm she had heretofore only observed from afar. The population of Tenney’s Harbor is split between those who view it as a getaway – Tristan, Bridges, the rest of the entitled teens and their parents – and those who view it as home – Pearl, Reese, Pearl’s dad and so on. Defining that split is key to the narrative’s compelling foundation.

The mystery carries forward with an enigmatic energy; French leaves bread crumbs to be followed while still leaving the reader room to make their own discoveries. The end – when it comes – comes quickly; while some might argue that the closure is too abrupt, French has constructed the narrative in such a way that the pacing of that ending is just right.

“The Lies They Tell” is a well-constructed, well-written thriller. Yes, Gillian French writes YA fiction, but one needn’t be a young adult to engage with her work. The quality of the work, the execution of it … while it might be intended for teenaged readers, it will entertain and engage an audience of any age.

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