Title: The Last Time I Lied
Author: Riley Sager
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Date of Publication: July 3, 2018
Fifteen years ago, thirteen-year-old Emma was sent to Camp Nightingale for the summer, where she joined a cabin with three older girls. Vivian, the ring-leader, instantly took her under her wing, treating her like a younger sister and showing her the ropes. But not long after summer camp begins, the three older girls vanish without a trace. In present day, Emma is still having a hard time letting go of the fact that the three girls were never found. An artist, she paints the three girls into all of the paintings in her forest series, hiding them behind gnarled branches and thick foliage. When she’s invited back to Camp Nightingale to teach art to the first cohort of girls since the terrible incident fifteen years ago, she jumps at the chance. Can she find the truth about what happened that night, or is history just going to repeat itself?
I could not put this book down! It is an incredibly atmospheric, creepy read. I love books and movies set at camp (Camp Crystal Lake, anyone?), and this book does not disappoint! Sager paints a vivid picture when setting the scene. The trees seem to come to life, and I soaked up every word he wrote. The whole story has an Agatha Christie-type of mystery feel to it –where readers suspect everyone of hiding a sinister secret. Anyone could be responsible for what happened to the girls fifteen years ago. Emma herself isn’t exactly the most trustworthy of narrators, as it is revealed early in the book that she suffered a mental breakdown shortly after camp fifteen years ago.
Parts of the story are written in second person. You did this, you did that. Often I find I don’t like this writing technique–with the obvious exception of “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style books. However, Sager doesn’t over-use this, and I found it was effective for placing me in the shoes of the main character. Sager doesn’t make the mistake of trying to do character development or fleshing out the main character’s past in these sections—which I find is unnecessarily confusing. I once read a book where the second person part was telling me about what my father used to always say. No. That is ridiculous. In this case, Sager uses this technique to create a general sense of unease, to foster an already dark and gloomy atmosphere, and to create intentional emotional confusion in the reader. I was impressed and it had its intended effect on me, that’s for sure!
One issue I had with this book was the repetitive nature. There are two timelines, present day and what happened fifteen years ago. However, during the present day storyline, Emma often reflects on memories that she has from the past. This could be of value if the past timeline were what “truly” happened, and her current reflections were clouded by her perspective, the passage of time, etc., but that’s not the case. Her memories mirror what is told to us through the flashbacks. This makes some parts repetitive, particularly in the beginning of the book. A non-spoilery example would be Emma’s memory that they were late to camp and that it was her fault. This is exactly what is depicted in the flashback where her mother is trying to get her to camp on time. It wasn’t necessary to share the same story twice. If there had been some incongruity in her memory (for example, if she had thought it was her mother’s fault) and what really happened (if it were revealed that it was actually her fault), this would speak to the unreliable nature of the narrator and make the reader question everything that was happening. This repetitiveness happens a few other times in the book, which both slows down reading and adds passages of text that just aren’t needed.
Despite this tiny complaint, I did appreciate how the past was being mirrored in the present. Franny, the elderly owner of the camp, couldn’t find a cabin for young Emma, requiring her to bunk with the older girls. Jump to the present, where it turns out that Emma can’t stay in a cabin with the other instructors, and she’s forced to sleep in the cabin she stayed in fifteen years ago. A little insensitive of Franny, but what can you do about that? I loved that aspect of the dual timelines, but perhaps Sager didn’t have to lay on the repetition quite so thick through both flashbacks and references during the present-day narrative.
Now that I’m finished repeating myself about not liking the repetitive nature of the book, I want to briefly mention the characters. Sager effectively recreates the dynamic you often see between teenage girls. Emma is a young girl who idolizes her older sister surrogate, and she would do anything to gain her approval. This is so relatable and accurately depicted. It can be difficult for a grown man to write teenage girls accurately, and although it’s been… let’s just say “a while” since I was a teenager, these relationships seemed authentic to me.
As a forensics major, I did find the way that the police handled the search for the girls a little unrealistic. Why didn’t they bring in dogs? There was no mention of heavy rain, which would have been an easy way to write around this issue. To avoid massive spoilers, I don’t want to get into more detail about what the police could have done better, other than saying that they should have started the search as soon as the girls went missing, and they should have done a systematic grid search, and the lake definitely would have been dredged if three wealthy girls went missing, even if it’s very deep and has a lot of garbage at the bottom.
This book had quite a few twists that left me reeling. That ending! While reading, the repetitive nature and issues with the stupid police officers had it at a 4-star rating, but that powerful conclusion undoubtedly bumped it up to five stars.
*I received a copy of this ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.*
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