Kate’s Review: “Nice Girls”

Book: “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: A pulse-pounding and deviously dark debut, written with the psychological acuity and emotional punch of Luckiest Girl Alive and All the Missing Girls, that explores the hungry, angry, dark side of girlhood and dares to ask what is most dangerous to a woman: showing the world what it wants to see, or who she really is?

What did you do?

Growing up in Liberty Lake, Minnesota, Mary was chubby, awkward, and smart. Earning a scholarship to an Ivy League school was her ticket out; she was going to do great things and never look back. Three years later, “Ivy League Mary” is back—a thinner, cynical, and restless failure. Kicked out of Cornell at the beginning of senior year, she won’t tell anyone why. Working at the local grocery store, she sees familiar faces from high school and tries to make sense of the past and her life.

When beautiful, magnetic Olivia Willand, a rising social media star, goes missing, Mary—like the rest of Liberty Lake—becomes obsessed. Best friends in childhood, Mary and Olivia haven’t spoken in years. Everyone admired Olivia, but Mary knows better than anyone that behind the Instagram persona hid a willful, manipulative girl with sharp edges. As the world worries for perfect, lovely Olivia, Mary can’t help but hate her. She also believes that her disappearance is tied to another missing person—a nineteen-year-old girl named DeMaria Jackson whose disappearance has gone under the radar.  

Who was the true Olivia Willand, and where did she go? What happened to DeMaria? As Mary delves deeper into the lives of the two missing girls, old wounds bleed fresh and painful secrets threaten to destroy everything. Maybe no one is really a nice girl, after all.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Though I know that my home state does have a fair amount of problems in some ways, ultimately I love being a Minnesota girl. I am always tickled when I’m reading a book that takes place here, and if that book falls into my preferred genres then it will almost assuredly get some priority on my reading list. Enter “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang, a suburban (maybe exurban?) thriller written by a local woman. I can honestly say that I was drawn in because of 1) setting, 2) general plot, and 3) the title lettering on the cover of the book. I’m not usually one who takes cover into account (I know Serena loves a good cover!), but the hot pink glowy neon of the book title made me go ‘now THIS is a design!’ Okay, I’m done gushing about the cover. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of “Nice Girls”, a thriller that oozes potential but never quite reaches it.

But I’m going to start with what did work for me, as is tradition. Dang captures the place and setting of Liberty Lake, Minnesota (a made up city/exurb), a community that’s a bit out state and small town-esque with a commanding lake and an insulated population. As I read it I was thinking about the lake town I found myself driving out to to get my COVID shots back when that shit was in demand (p.s., PLEASE get vaccinated if you can, folks). Liberty Lake feels fleshed out in terms of the community itself and how the people view each other, with the expected underbelly of not spoken of racism, misogyny, and stifling community repression. Our main character, Mary, wanted to get out of Liberty Lake, and exceeded the town’s expectations when she was accepted to Cornell. But the usual theme of pride mingling with resentment is there, as when she returns to town after being expelled there is a certain sense of ‘though you were better than us, but look at you now’ that she has to face. Though a fair amount of that may also be her own resentments about being unable to escape a community that she never quite fit into. Along with that, Dang compares and contrasts our two missing women through the lens of the missing white woman syndrome, a theme that is always important to note when it comes to whose stories get picked up and paid attention to when they are potential victims of violent crimes. The victim we hear of first is Olivia, a town darling who is white, blonde, and a social media influencer whose lifelong popularity makes her disappearance front page news. Search parties are going out day after day, the headlines are dominated by her disappearance, and everyone is praying for her safe return. But before Olivia disappeared, DeMaria disappeared, with far less fanfare, even as her body parts are found in the lake. DeMaria is a lower income, Black, single mother, and no one seems to be interested in what happened to her. It’s a comment on systemic and ingrained racism that we’ve started to see more of in fictional stories, but I still welcome the topic because it’s still a huge problem.

But here is where things don’t work as well in “Nice Girls”. Mary as a character is something we have seen before in a thriller like this: she’s damaged, she returns home with a dark secret, and she starts to spiral more and more when she gets embroiled in the local secrets. This kind of thing can work if the main character is compelling in other ways, but Mary is fairly two dimensional who is defined by her dourness, and her deep seated insecurities make her a very unlikable person and hard to root for. She doesn’t really have any growth during this book, and she makes huge missteps that feel convenient to the plot while feeling a bit haphazard even for her slightly unhinged personality. And Mary isn’t the only unlikable character, as there are very few people in this book that I actually liked and wanted to know more about, and those who I did like were relegated to the sidelines for the most part. These kinds of things could be easier to overlook if the mystery itself was addictive, but overall it was pretty standard, with a reveal that felt shaky in the laid out groundwork that held it up. There were a few moments that were genuinely surprising, but the pay off was rushed.

I have no doubt in my mind that I will be picking up the next book by Catherine Dang, as her ability to write and create a setting filled with rich descriptions was definitely there. “Nice Girls” is probably worth the read for casual thriller fans, but if you’ve been steeped in the genre for awhile it may not have the pay off you want.

Rating 6: I saw a lot of potential here and there were some good themes, but the characters were two dimensional and the mystery itself was fairly average.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nice Girls” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “Nice Girls” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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