It seem like a lot of the mystery novels I’m drawn to these days feature an unreliable narrator (or narrators in the case of The American Girl). Whether this is due to the success of novels like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train has encouraged publishers to jump on the unreliable narrator bandwagon or that it’s just that I’ve become more aware of this particular narrative hook, I’m not sure.
What I do know is that, at this point, it takes a lot to make an unreliable narrator story stand out to me.
Kate Horsley’s The American Girl was able to do that. Well, at least it was able to do that for the first hundred or so pages.
When exchange student Quinn Perkins comes stumbling out the woods, bloodies, barefoot and running toward a passing car, she becomes a viral sensation. But Quinn can’t tell the police what happened to her or her host family, who have mysteriously vanished. Enter Molly Perkins, an ambitious podcasting journalist who sees Quinn as her next big story. Passing herself as Quinn’s aunt, Molly begins to try to make sense of what happened to Quinn.
Told in alternating perspectives from Molly and Quinn, The American Girl unfolds like a noir thriller for its first hundred or so pages. Horsley gives us glimpses and hints of what’s going to happen to Quinn from blog posts and transcriptions of video essays as Quinn tries to put her life back together. Molly’s story is more straight-forward as she tries to fill in the gaps, building the trust of not only Quinn but also the chief investigator on the case.
It’s once the novel hits its mid section that the story begins to feel like its treading water a bit. It could be that I started to piece together what was really going on with Quinn (before and after her memory loss) long before any one else did. Or it could be that the trick of using an unreliable narrator started to have me second-guessing everything we were being told by both narrators. As the adage on House goes, “Everyone lies” and that’s certainly the case when it comes to Quinn and Molly.
The story picks up again in its final third as Horsley and her protagonists reveal what happened leading up to Quinn’s emergence from the woods and its impact on the characters. But I still couldn’t overcome the feeling that the story could have been fifty pages shorter and not diminished the impact or the eventual reveal of what really happened.
The biggest strength of The American Girl is Horsley’s capturing of two different voices for her narrators. That strength kept me going through much of the middle section of the book where it felt like things were getting bogged down from not only the lack of any investigation by the police into Molly’s claims to be Quinn’s aunt to the feeling that the story is treading water a bit as it waits to make its final moves.
When it’s on top of its game, The American Girl is a readable, entertaining thriller that kept me guessing as to what was going to come next until I turned the final page.
I received an ARC of this book as part of the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.