Book Review: With Malice, Eileen Cook (2016)

June 10th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

With Malice will keep you guessing – even after the end!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

“Right now your brain knows there is missing information, and it’s desperately trying to fill in those blanks.” She opened a desk drawer and fished out a paper. “Ever see something like this?”

I looked down. At first the words looked like gibberish, and then they clicked into place.

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.

I passed the sheet back to her. “I’ve seen something like it online.”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Dr. Weeks knocked on top of the model of the brain she kept on her credenza. “The darn things still fascinate me as much as they did when I started in this field. How they can fill in what’s missing — find patterns and create meaning where there was nothing. One of the most primal survival instincts the brain has is finding pattern and assigning meaning. When there is a breakdown, it will scramble to find those patterns again as quickly as possible.”

“I didn’t do this,” I said.

“Of course you didn’t,” Mom said. She patted my hand. “The police aren’t going to be able to prove a thing.”

That’s when I knew beyond any doubt she believed I’d done it.

Eighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital bed with a broken leg, several broken ribs, an assortment of cuts and bruises – and no idea how she got there. Through bits and pieces – angry blog posts and reluctant drips of info from the ‘rents – she comes to learn that she was on a class trip to Italy when the car she was driving barreled through a stone wall and off a cliff. Jill survived, but the passenger – her best friend of eight years, Simone McIvory – did not.

After the was-it-or-wasn’t-it-an-accident, Jill’s hoighty-toighty father whisked her out of the country on a private flight, ostensibly so she could receive top-notch medical care in the states. Then he hired her a lawyer and (wait for it!) a PR team. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that Keith used his wealth to shield his daughter – and, by extension, his family – from the fallout of an investigation and possible murder charge.

While Jill is convinced that there’s no way she’d ever murder Simone, she has no memory of the event – or even the six or so weeks leading up to it. And her brain isn’t exactly cooperating; in addition to retrograde amnesia, Jill’s also dealing with aphasia, which makes it all the more difficult to defend herself. Yet as new facts and evidence come to light – in the form of police interviews, witness statements, cell phone videos, news articles, and Facebook and blog posts – Jill begins to doubt herself: what really happened that fateful day in Montepulciano?

Jill’s present-day narration is interspersed with items pertaining to the investigation. However, the evidence proves as shaky as Jill’s memory, as everyone involved – from Simone’s parents to her friends and even strangers at a quaint Tuscan cafe – is privy to just one part of the overall puzzle. (The secret lives of teenagers ftw.) Conflicting accounts and personal agendas further muddy the waters.

In addition to a murder mystery/psychological thriller, With Malice is also a sly interrogation of internet culture – of how instant gratification and anonymity can bring out the worst in us. Reminiscent of the Amanda Knox case – complete with the reasonably attractive American femme fatale, an Italian Lothario, and a dead roommate, possibly murdered under titillating circumstances – the “Murder Abroad” makes Jill famous, in the worst way possible. Eager to cast Jill (and, later, Nico) as the villain, Internet commentators pile on with glee, twisting everything Jill ever posted online to fit their narrative. Anyone even tangentially related to the case is given an unquestioning platform. With Malice even has a sleazy, Nancy Grace-like true crime reporter, taking mainstream media (news as entertainment) to task as well.

With Malice is a really great beach read – assuming you like your beach reads a little dark and twisted. I’ve seen it compared to We Were Liars – which is the main reason I picked it up, tbh – and, while the both do feature a big plot twist thanks to a handy case of amnesia, the overall vibe is completely different. In We Were Liars, the twist came as a complete surprise to me (somehow I’d managed to avoid spoilers), including the mere fact that there was a twist. Here, they don’t tiptoe around it at all; the twist is part of the appeal.

Also, We Were Liars had a much more likeable cast of characters – mostly privileged but well-intentioned young adults – which made the ending that much more tragic. I could appreciate what they were trying to do, even if they failed in the most epic way possible. In contrast, almost everyone (save maybe for Anna, Mom, and the rehab staff) is kind of awful and hard to stomach, even if you don’t realize it until the end. It’s not a bad thing – Gone Girl utilized horrible people to great effect – but it does sap a little of the emotional impact from the ending.

You should know that the conclusion is very open-ended; usually I hate that, but it works quite well here. The story keeps you guessing, and the ending guarantees you’ll keep on doing so long after you’ve turned the last page. I don’t usually re-read four-star books – my TBR pile is just too big for that luxury! – but I’m considering revisiting that rule for With Malice, just to see if I interpret anything differently in light of the “reveal.”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: After surviving a car accident in Italy, Jill wakes up in a hospital bed in the US. She has a broken leg (which requires the use of a wheelchair), several broken ribs, retrograde amnesia, and aphasia. She spends a month or so in an inpatient rehab facility, undergoing both physical and educational/psychological therapy. Her roommate, Anna Lopez, is paralyzed from the waist down – thanks to her ex-boyfriend, who pushed her down a flight of stairs.

Anna is Latina; Jill’s conservative snob of a father dislikes Anna instantly, and even frames her for leaking photos of Jill in rehab. He didn’t care for Simone, either, since her family is lower middle-class while Mr. Charron earns a couple mil a year.

Their physical therapist, Sam, is an Indian man.

Jill and Simone’s mutual friend Tara is Jewish.

The Program Director for Adventures Abroad is named Liz Ochoa, and one of Jill’s fellow travelers is Samantha Yu.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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One Response to “Book Review: With Malice, Eileen Cook (2016)”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Great Book!

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