CW: Discussions of Violence, Abusive Relationships, and Suicide.
What is the line between romance—or romanticization of ideals—and horror? Is there a secret line in our society that we cross over between finding something beautiful and finding something horrifying. Many modern thrillers that I’ve read this year have come toe-to-toe with that notion.
I know because this summer, when I was reading through query letters and manuscript, literally every other author was insisting they had written “the next Gone Girl but for YA.” This would make me kind of sigh, because usually they were mistaking the on-the-edge-of-your-seat thrilling feeling of Gone Girl with any vaguely-racy thing they were making their characters do. The thing about Gone Girl—and many books like it—is that it walks such a delicate line of pulling you in and having you believe this fantasy and having you push back from it in horror.
It’s a beautiful and delicate balance and one that I found embodied in Lynn Weingarten’s Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls.
So much of this is balancing the line between trust and betrayal. I had expectations or hopes for certain characters to do the right thing, but, at times, I felt like I was being pushed to the point that I wanted to retract wholly from them. It was like Wuthering Heights in a lot of these ways, because Weingarten masterfully navigates her readers expectations for this book and then twists those expectations around. Romances go south, friendships are stretched to their limits, and no one seems safe in the book.
The narrative opens with June discovering that her old best friend, Delia, has set a shed on fire to kill herself. But June doesn’t believe it because fire was the one thing in the world that Delia was afraid of. She believes that someone else has a hand in her friend’s death and searches for answers. Alternating between past memories and present sleuthing, the reader watches their friendship unfurl. June talks about how Delia made her feel special, but there was this underlying tension of the boys Delia desired for herself or for June causing tension in their friendship, a tension that comes to its breaking point when Delia either seduces or is seduced by June’s boyfriend while June is puking in a bathroom. There’s a delicate balance of kind friend and over-invested voyeur that Delias seems to walk with June. And then the twist of the narrative comes.
That twist revolves around Delia and that she is 1) not dead and 2) so obsessed with June that she is willing to lose everything she has created to try and make June stay with her. At what point does this narrative—either in its flashbacks or in Delia’s return—twist from loving and romantic to a nightmare? I’m sure some readers had a feeling about it at different points, depending on how much they wanted to believe Delia’s story.
I had tingles for much of their interactions—especially once Delia came back to life and was so hyper-focused on June. It is at this point in the narrative that we get sections from Delia’s point of view, and I started to get really concerned about the way that she was expressing her desire for June. I wanted to wholly trust Delia and see their friendship as a good thing, but she kept throwing up red flags that made me pull back from the stories she told.
Then the ending came.
Delia and her group of misfits have faked multiple suicides at this point, including their own. The narrative has also been teasing that Delia stole something from a drug dealer, which is revealed at the end as something to be a gun. Delia gives her a choice, but doesn’t explicitly say the choice before we’re left with the final page: June’s suicide note.
It’s haunting, and I felt chills when I read this, because I genuinely was unsure of this was a forgery and June had remained dependent on Delia or if Delia had killed June or if Delia had killed both herself and June. It leaves you wondering at whatpoint this all got out of hand, and made me want to go back and reread it to try and analyze the characters more deeply to untangle the ending.
Even though these open-endings are sometimes frustrating, this one seems to perfectly fit how the novel has balanced itself—between romantic and horrific—through the whole of the narrative. It’s a fascinating connection and one that makes this thriller an incredibly successful one.