Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Title: Beautiful Liars
Author: Isabel Ashdown
Rating: ★★ (2/5)
Description: Eighteen years ago Martha said goodbye to best friend Juliet on a moonlit London towpath.
The next morning Juliet's bike was found abandoned at the waterside. She was never seen again.
Nearly two decades later Martha is a TV celebrity, preparing to host a new crime show... and the first case will be that of missing student Juliet Sherman. After all these years Martha must reach out to old friends and try to piece together the final moments of Juliet's life.
But what happens when your perfect friends turn out to be perfect strangers...?
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TW: Fatphobia, Eating Disorders, Anorexia, Murder, Violence, Racism
Beautiful Liars by Isabel Ashdown is a new mystery by the author. It is the second one of her's that I have read. I went into this book knowing very little about it aside from the summary on the back as I like to go in with fresh eyes. And it was a good book in terms of the actual writing, but there were definitely some issues that couldn't be ignored.
The story begins with a bang in how it outright displays a completely immoral viewpoint. I enjoyed the start with the narrator looking back at a grey past, especially how you realize it connects to the story later on. Logic of the narrator, while easy enough to follow, is so astonishing that it makes the reader wonder if they've interpreted the words correctly. Because this person, whoever they are, casts a shadow over everything on the page around them.
Characters shown from the minute you turn the first page are different and oh so strange. Their thoughts are uncalled for in a way that gives the reader cause to audibly gasp. It's quite refreshing to be put in the mind of someone who isn't necessarily good. There is a way of flippant curiosity in how the characters are written.
Right out of the gate, the story takes a very different route than what the reader expects. The plot is somehow linear but also not monotonous in falling into step. The author's chapter changes are starkly brazen and in being so are compelling for the reader to continue forward. Psychologically there's an interesting question posed about our human nature and the ways in which we form memories.
Isabel Ashdown throws the reader in head first to what one would call an abrupt style of writing that is entirely pleasant given the genre. The author doesn't shy away from detailed descriptions. She also doesn't avoid descriptions that border on inappropriate. These cover every inch of the book, the good and bad alike. Her tone is curt, informative, and matter of fact. It reads like a newspaper cataloging the saga. The investigative writing style is reminiscent of Mary Higgins Clarke but weirder in an indescribable way.
One issue I had with Beautiful Liars was the blatant fatphobia. Fatphobia in the story makes it seem as though those who are fat are somehow evil. Fatness is made out to be a physical characteristic of this person's badness or wrongness. Fat is also equated to dirty or unclean with bad personal upkeep and hygiene. Then on the same spectrum, anorexia is portrayed as an abusive or "other" thing and that didn't sit right with me.
Another problem with the story is that there is definitely racism underlying Casey's POV. The author is white and it doesn't feel like race was given enough consideration other than a slapstick inclusion that feels like a bigoted afterthought. It is never raised as an issue and later on you are expected to feel sympathy for the character who is the primary source of this racism even though she has demonstrated this kind of internal discrimination repeatedly.
The POV of Martha, the main character who you go into the book expecting to lead, comes later and adds a grounding to the other more far-fetched personas. She is a capable and straightforward narrator. Martha isn't a character you immediately understand because of the gaps in her past that the author doesn't reveal at first. While an easily assumed narrator, Martha becomes more and more of a conflicting character as you read. But she is a good choice as a narrator due to her unsureness and need to get to the truth.
There's a cautious optimism about the relationships Martha forms, with everyone from Toby to Mr. Sherman, the latter being Juliet's father. In the present, Martha and Toby's, her cohost and potential love interest, relationship is amusing if not a little jerky in its quick shifts. The age difference between the two doesn't feel insurmountable in that they're both well into adulthood with established lives. The relationship is actually written more interesting than many of the usual ones I see in the mystery genre.
Casey is the other narrator that the reader doesn't expect going into the book. She is incomprehensibly strange and dark. She seems to have a desire, or rather a need, to insert herself into the lives of the three girls: Martha, Liv, and Juliet. Casey is in her most basic form erratically manipulative. Initially, it is entirely unclear how Casey ties into the story and what her role is which makes her even more interesting to the reader. Later on, the disclosure of Casey's connection as a relative of the original prime suspect is shocking in its approach from out of left field.
There's a bit of a lack of ability to suspend the belief that the team working on the case would take so much evidence without any kind of credibility. It almost seems that there is a sense of naivety to the characters who are supposed to be professionals in their fields. And, after being part of an elaborate hoax, Martha is awfully willing to fall into the same traps again set by Casey.
Everything is subtley connected so as to initially be unseen by the reader. It's like looking at a puzzle up close, unable to see the grand picture of it all. Every word guides the reader deeper into the lies and secrets and ultimately the mystery. Every revelation strikes the reader like a knife. Even in moments where the evidence isn't tangible, you can still feel the significance of the possibilities.
The mystery of Juliet is solved in an array of chaos and danger but somehow it feels like a new beginning for the girls. In the fashion of a good mystery, everything slowly clicks into place and then forms a clear image all at once. Every piece of new evidence and connections that become apparent are surprisingly enough shocking in their reveals. All the evidence is fragmented at first like nothing is quite clicking. The author definitely knows how to drop a bombshell revelation.
Ultimately this is a story of friendship between Martha, Liv, and Juliet. It is a story of heartbreak when their best friend goes missing and the journey to overcome that. It is a story about finding their way back to each other in the most unconventional of ways. The past that continues to haunt the characters so much is a source of curiosity for the reader. It takes a while for them all to fill in the gaps of the true story but when they do they find the serenity they've been lacking since Juliet disappeared.
I really wanted to give Beautiful Liars by Isabel Ashdown a good rating. The mystery was solid, the characters were unusually interesting, and the format was enthralling. Sadly, the issue arises in the blatant racism, anorexia portrayals, and fatphobia. Based on the story alone it probably would have landed at a 4 star read. But given all these other and undoubtedly wrong facts there was no way I could in good conscience give it a better rating.
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