Warning: This review contains spoilers. Photo of book cover taken from Amazon.com
In her debut novel “They Wish They Were Us,” Jessica Goodman delivers a young adult thriller with a riveting murder mystery and a prep school secret society rich with history and problems.
It’s Jill Newman’s senior year at Gold Coast Prep, the year she’s been anxiously awaiting for the last three years. Jill is a Player, a member of the elite secret society that places her at the top of the school hierarchy. Being a Player also gives Jill access to the greatest parties and the best grades. Being a Player gives Jill opportunities to achieve things previously out of reach. It makes her life perfect.
Jill’s amazing senior year quickly proves to be far less amazing than planned. As senior Players, Jill and her friends are responsible for selecting the next group of Players from the freshman class. Freshman players go through challenges called “pops” set for them by the seniors, some that aren’t so bad and others that are.
But the process reminds Jill of her freshman year when she and her friends were chosen to be Players and all the horrible things they went through. The year when Jill realized that things in Gold Coast are not as perfect as they seem. The year her best friend Shaila Arnold was murdered by her boyfriend Graham on the night of their Player initiation.
Strange texts from Rachel Calloway, the older sister of her best friend’s killer further complicate what was supposed to be Jill’s year. Rachel is certain that her brother is innocent and needs Jill’s help to prove it. Jill desperately wants to know the truth of what happened to Shaila, but the more she digs the more she stands to lose. And if Graham didn’t kill Shaila then someone else close to them did.
“They Wish They Were Us” was a good read overall. The plot was interesting and the desire to find out what really happened to Shaila Arnold kept me going. In places where the murder-mystery was lacking, Jill’s character development and female camraderie make up for it. It was also very interesting to see how the school and surrounding community let the Players get away with cheating and hazing, among other things. The community response to the Players shows just how deep the history of the Players runs in Gold Coast.
One of the things I found disappointing about the book is how easy it was for me to figure out who killed Shaila Arnold. It’s pretty obvious early on that Shaila’s boyfriend who confessed to her murder, has been set up. Rachel and Jill come up with another suspect for Shaila’s murder; their high school English teacher Mr. Beaumont. Although he fits every piece of evidence they gather, Beaumont is too obvious to be the killer. Beaumont’s innocence leaves Jill and Rachel with no suspect, but I realized that the evidence fit one other person. The last person anyone would suspect. Jill Newman’s best friend, longtime crush and former Player Adam Miller. I wasn’t remotely surprised when Adam was revealed as Shaila’s killer because he’s just unassuming enough to seem innocent and his motive was obscured by the hidden romance he shared with Shaila. Once again, it’s always those closest to us who are guilty.
What I liked best about this book is Jill’s character. At the beginning all Jill cares about is having the best year and getting into Brown. She’s got everything going for her; The perfect boyfriend, a best friend, the best lunch spot, great grades and popularity. She has the opportunity to make a change in the Players so that no one else experiences what they did. And so no one else ends up like Shaila.
Jill is horrified when the other Players don’t live up to their promise to change things and quits the Players. This costs Jill her friends, brother, and boyfriend, but Jill remains committed to doing what she knows is right. She also increases her pursuit of what really happened to Shaila, despite the complications and risks it poses to her. Jill does not get any benefit for doing the right thing but does it because she has learned from her mistakes and hardships even if it took her a few years.
I really liked Jill as a character because she showed a lot of strength. After years of following, Jill breaks free from the status quo and stands up to her friends which is not an easy thing to do. She also shows determination in her behavior after quitting the Players because she works hard to earn good grades, dedicates herself to the truth, and sticks to her decision to quit even though the Players would have taken her back.
My favorite thing about Jill, though, is that she does not let her crush on Adam allow him to manipulate her any longer. When Jill realizes that he killed Shaila she doesn’t try to make excuses for him to herself or anyone else. Instead she is determined to take him down. I think this is a prime example of her strength because Jill has been in love with him for three years and could easily let that blind her. But Jill does not do that and she further chooses to make sure he is held accountable for his crimes herself.
I also really liked the way Goodman ends the novel. On what should have been the initiation night of the new Players, Jill and the Senior Players put an end to the not-so-secret society. Nikki, the Players Toastmaster tosses the Players binder into the bonfire and shuts down the Files. Then their non-Player classmates join them for a party, cementing the end of the Players as Gold Coast Prep elite. I was also pleased by the reconciliation between Jill and her friends, especially Henry whose heart was broken when she broke up with him. The best part of the ending, in my opinion, is that Jill decides against going to Brown because she wants to be somewhere where she can start fresh without Adam or the Players tainting her new beginning.
“They Wish They Were Us” is set to air as a tv series on HBO Max. The series will be called “The Players Table” and will star singer Halsey and Euphoria actress Sydney Sweeney. Halsey will play Rachel Calloway while Sweeney plays Jill Newman. The release date for “The Players Table” has not been set, however it is expected to air sometime in 2022.