Title: Little Black Lies
Author: Tish Cohen
Genre: YA – Contemporary
Publisher: Egmont USA
Publishing Date: October 13, 2009
Hardcover: 320 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
Why did I read the book: The author offered a review copy and since I am into straight contemporary YA at the moment, I was pleased to accept.
How did I get the book: I received an ARC from the author
Summary: Sara Black is tiptoeing across a fraying tightrope.
As the new eleventh grader at Anton High–the most elite public school in the country–she sticks out like an old VW bus in a parking lot full of shiny BMWs. But being the new kid also brings a certain advantageous anonymity.
In Anton High’s world of privilege, intelligence, and wealth, Sara can escape her family’s tarnished past and become whomever she wants.
And what’s the harm in telling a few little black lies when it can lead to popularity? That is, until another it girl at Anton becomes jealous of Sara’s social climbing.
With her balance evaporating, one small push could bring Sara crashing down.
Sarah Black is not having a good year. Her mother left the family and moved to France; her father’s OCD is coming back full force and now they are moving to a new town and Sarah is to attend a new school . But not any school: Anton High School is an elite school for the rich and the brainy; hard to get in, even harder to endure but those who do, are sure to be on their way to an Ivy League college.
Sarah is a fish out of water. Even though she is a Maths genius ( which secured her a place in the school ) that is not enough to make her excel at the other classes. Plus, she is also poor. Her father is the new janitor of the school, her uniform is second hand from the Lost and Found and she knows that she simply doesn’t belong.
So when during her first day, people misunderstand where she comes from and instead of Lundom, Massachusetts, she becomes the girl from London, England, she is more than happy to oblige. All of a sudden, she is interesting and on the radar of the Popular Clique, lead by a girl named Carling (AKA, The Bitch). But then there is the Incident in which she ends up stealing Yoga pants and the worst lie of them all: the one where she erases her father and replaces him with a brain surgeon parent. All of a sudden, Sarah is in deep and becomes entangled in a web of lies that may prove too much to handle.
Little Black Lies is not a Big Plot book being more of an interesting glimpse into a few months of the life of a 15 year old. Contrary to the blurb and the title which I think imply a certain harmful intention behind her lies, Sarah really is a good-natured girl who makes bad choices when trying to navigate the social minefields of her school. And these lies don’t come lightly or easy either. For every time a lie is told or accepted, Sarah struggles with her conscience. In fact, her need to be part of the in-crowd is almost understandable because of her palpable frustration with having to start afresh. As a teenager she has no say in her life and things happen to her that she can’t control: her mother leaving; her father’s decision to move away from her school (where she was set to become Valedictorian ) and her best friend Mandy. Her confusion as to why her father refuses the offer of a better job to remain a custodian and why he quit treatment for his OCD , a disease that is becoming increasingly problematic and hindering his day to day activities.
Sarah and her father Charlie’s relationship was very well explored. There is a lot of love between them and Charlie’s OCD was such a strong presence in their lives almost to the point where Sarah is the parent and Charlie the kid. The OCD takes so much of a toll that Charlie comes across as an old man when he really is only 35 years old. When Sarah lies about her father, it is painful to all of us: the reader and to Sarah. It eats at her but it also provides an opening at a new life which seems fresh and light. At least to begin with until she realises how horrible the kids surrounding Carling really are.
Although I couldn’t shake the feeling that I read it all before, especially with regards to the High School cliques, I thought the author managed to avoid too much of a common-place by making Sarah suffer the consequences of her acts in the end by keeping away from a Perfect Ending that Solves All Problems. That certainly does not happen here.
I also thought it thought it was very interesting how the author cleverly intertwined Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky with the narrative. Sarah is reading the book for school and constantly thinks about Raskolnikov’s or Rascal, as she refers to him, actions in the book. It is almost a reflexion of her guilt and shame permeating the narrative but not so much as to make it too heavy but enough to add some depth.
And I loved how Sarah’s math’s inclination is incorporated into who she is. This happens as she creates equations in her mind about her life or how she tries to search for patterns in Carling’s behaviour for example. To Sarah, this girl’s life is so erratic and I think that explains part of her obsession with the girl.
On the down side, I had a few problems with the writing. Sometimes within paragraphs, there were weird breaks, jumps from thinking about school to thinking about her father for instance, almost leaving the first incomplete. There are also flashbacks insertions about the time when Sarah’s mother was leaving that were definitely interesting but the transition between the now and then was never smooth enough and they came without any warnings. I often found myself inserted in the past thinking I was still in the present.
And then there is Leo, the love interest who starts as Carling’s boyfriend. Leo does seem to be a very cool guy and genuinely nice too. But I kept thinking how in the world did this nice guy dated The Bitch for 8 months. I can’t see why and never really learnt why as Leo is not a well fleshed out character. It felt that he was there simply to fill the required Love Interest role that never came alive to me. In fairness , the romance storyline is not central and in the end there is nothing but a promise of a possible future, which is the very reason why I would say that this thread was included only because it is one of the pre-requisites for YA novels these days.
All in all, I quite liked Little Black Lies and even though it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi to make it an unforgettable novel it certainly does have enough qualities to make it a solid good read.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: I liked this part when Charlie is having one of his episodes and is scrubbing, scrubbing away an old sink at the school:
Knowing full well it’s like giving the alcoholic a beer, I hand the bleach to my father. “Try this.”
His wild eyes focus on me but he says nothing. Just removes the cap, douses his cloth in fluid, and wipes the sink with it. He stands back and watches the sink go from shiny and silver with wetness, back to mottled and dusty-looking silver. The sound of the microbes screaming, dying, is nearly audible, and right away I see his jaw slacken and relax. It’s the sanitary equivalent of having dug the perfect hole.
Additional Thoughts: I am really interested in reading more YA contemporaries – but without a shred of Fantasy or any signs of Fallen Angels and Sparkly Vampires (not that there is anything wrong with that. Mostly).
I recently read Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson and Everything Beautiful by Simon Howell and I thought both were very good and highly recommended, albeit they are quite different in tone. I have a couple more in my TBR but I am looking for more recommendations. Any thoughts?
Verdict: A solid little book with a glimpse into the life of a troubled young kid who has real, difficult problems.
Rating: 6 – good and leaning towards a 7
Reading Next: Books for Halloween (gaah!)