Book Review: The Lies We Tell by Katie Zhao

Katie Zhao's The Lies We Tell is a tense and thrilling YA about what it means to not feel safe in the places we call home. Check out Doreen Sheridan's review!

Anna Xu is an introverted young woman who’s thrilled to be able to move out of her parents’ home and into the freshman dorms of Brookings University, the elite Michigan college that gives the Ivy League a run for its money. Granted, Brookings happens to be the mainstay of the college town the Xu family lives in. Their bakery, Sweetea, is even a short walk away from campus, so it’s not like she’s moving completely out of her parents’ orbit.

But sheltered Anna is glad to finally get out from under their constant worrying, to go experience college and the first few trappings of solo adulthood. And if she’s being honest, she’s also glad for the opportunity that enrolling at Brookings gives her to look into the cold case of her former babysitter, Melissa Hong.

Seven years ago, Melissa, then a Brookings student as well, was found murdered on campus. There weren’t a lot of leads, and after the case went cold, her grieving parents moved back to China. Anna has been fascinated with the case ever since, and harbors the conviction that she could perhaps solve the mystery once she becomes a part of the fabric of campus life herself.

College, however, is a far different experience from anything Anna expected. She has trouble making friends, and her roommate is distant at best. Her classes are also tougher than she’d anticipated, leaving her little time to do anything besides ask a few blundering questions about the murder, following leads from articles written at the time

That’s enough, though, to alert a killer as to Anna’s interest in what happened to Melissa. A devious mind begins to insinuate itself into Anna’s life, culminating in a creepy warning set up tableau-style in her dorm bathroom. Anna is understandably shaken:

West Tower wasn’t safe. My room wasn’t safe. Nowhere was safe.

 

You’ll go the same way Melissa Hong did.

 

A warning. A warning of what was to come. Maybe the reason I’d been obsessed with Melissa’s case was because deep down, I had an inkling that I might one day meet the same fate.

Feeling isolated and targeted, not just because of her investigations but because of her ethnicity too, Anna doesn’t know where to turn. Fellow student Chris Lu offers to help, but their relationship is fraught with baggage. Bad enough that they’d been rivals when much younger, a rivalry that Anna hasn’t yet been able to grow out of as she continues to view him as her main academic competition at college. His parents have also recently opened a bakery right across the street from Sweetea, to the chagrin of the entire Xu family.

When push comes to shove, however, even Anna will admit that some things are more important than grades and pride, especially when her own safety is at stake. Still, she’s reluctant to listen to Chris’ advice and get the police involved, given her dim view of their ability to take her seriously:

I could tell that as much as we both wished it weren’t true, he knew I was right. Until I had some solid proof that someone was targeting me, going to the authorities would be a waste of time.

 

“So what’s your plan, then, if you’re not going to [even] clue in our RAs on what’s going on? You’re not stupid enough to go after this person all on your own.” When I said nothing, Chris groaned. “You are that stupid. Jesus, Anna.”

 

“It’s not stupid. It’s the only option.”

 

“No, the other, sensible option is to report this to–”

 

“I won’t do it, Chris. They wouldn’t even believe me. Like I said, there’s no proof.”

While I’m very much Team Chris in choosing to do the sensible thing, no matter how seemingly futile—paper trails are important, after all—Anna’s determination to find the person threatening her and to uncover their connection to Melissa makes for absorbing, fast-paced reading. I did have to keep reminding myself that Anna is an overconfident 18-year-old without a lot of real world experience whenever she does rash things. I also thought her paranoia regarding racism hampered her more than any actual bias on the part of the authorities did. That said, it was refreshing to see Anna take on the insidious ways racism is used to alienate and control minorities, particularly Asian women, and gratifying to follow along as she got to the truth of what happened to Melissa in this socially-aware YA thriller.

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