Book Review: Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison
By John ValeriJanuary 9, 2020
Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison is a pulse-pounding new psychological thriller that examines the tenuous bonds of friendship, the power of lies, and the desperate lengths people will go to in order to protect their secrets.
J.T. Ellison is the New York Times- and USA Today-bestselling author of more than 20 novels; these include a six-book series co-written with Catherine Coulter. Additionally, she serves as co-host of A Word on Words, Nashville’s premier literary television show, and earned an Emmy Award for that work. Ellison’s books have been published in 27 countries and 15 languages. Her new standalone, Good Girls Lie, released in late December.
The story opens with the discovery of a dead body, face mutilated, hanging from the front gate of The Goode School, an elite all-girls boarding school that sits atop a hill in the insular town of Marchburg, Virginia. It’s not the first time the educational institution has been touched by tragedy—indeed, an infamous stalking/rape/murder played out on the grounds years ago, resulting in a change of administration—but it is the first blight under its new leadership. And while this newest victim is unrecognizable in her current state, one word, a single name, ripples through the onlooking crowd: Ash.
Sixteen-year-old Ash Carlisle hails from London, where her own life has been tinged by tragedy; in addition to the years-ago drowning death of her young brother, she has recently lost her father to a “misadventure” (a polite term for overdose) and mother to suicide. The Goode School, with its strict Honor Code and illustrious ties to Ivy League universities, offers both anonymity and the promise of a bright future. But Ash soon attracts the attention of It Girl Becca Curtis, the senior leader in charge of Honor Court as well as the school’s most celebrated secret society, whose influence can either make or break Ash’s chances for success. The push-and-pull of their emotionally charged relationship drives the ensuing drama and (further) serves to alienate Ash from her fellow sophomores.
Meanwhile, 35-year-old Dean Ford Julianne Westhaven—a frustrated aspiring writer with dreams of living in New York City who assumed oversight of Goode after her mother was ousted—is beginning to realize that the school’s carefully constructed façade is just that: a façade. Bullying, dangerous hazing rituals, and illicit liaisons are rampant on her campus, and she’s one incident away from a public-relations nightmare. The headmistress has secrets of her own, however, and minimizing attention to these transgressions also minimizes the risk of her exposure. But Ash’s arrival, and a subsequent string of disturbing occurrences, prove that there’s more at stake than reputation.
Despite their differences, Ash and Dean Westhaven have masks to wear and roles to play—and each is counting on the other to keep up appearances. But when death comes calling, so do the local authorities. Led by Westhaven’s onetime lover, Sheriff Anthony (“Tony”) Wood—with an unofficial assist from his niece, an ambitious up and comer whose law enforcement connections extend overseas—the investigation threatens to reveal the school’s lingering ghosts, both real and imagined. Consequently, the proverbial match has been lit, and it’s only a matter of time before a raging fire scorches everything, and everyone, in its path.
The narrative is told through multiple viewpoints—mainly, first person via Ash and third person via Westhaven—and alternates past and present events; the former begets intimacy, misunderstanding, and suspicion, while the latter has the result of distorting events before bringing them into sharper focus. Ellison, who herself attended a Woman’s College that serves as the basis for The Goode School (an Author’s Note at the end of the book separates the fact from the fiction of her experiences), excels at depicting the treacherous relationship between teenage girls and the ever-fine line that exists between love and hate. Perhaps the overarching theme is this: appearances often belie reality—and readers would do well to remember that.
Good Girls Lie, then, is a masterclass in suspense, written by an author who has consistently shown herself to be on an upward trajectory. The plot is equal parts propulsion and poignance, and the characters themselves—inherently flawed but innately fascinating—are engaging; further, the gothic setting, with its secret passageways and underground tunnels, enhances the story’s overall potency. While Megan Abbott is largely considered to be the forerunner in spinning tales of adolescent female angst, J.T. Ellison’s name should be among the short list.