Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

From the front flap:
Gossip thrives amid the Mercedes-Benzes, mega mansions, and perfectly manicured hedges in the exclusive town of Rosewood, Pennsylvania. Behind their big Gucci sunglasses, beneath their perfectly pressed Polos, everyone has something to hide, especially high school juniors Spencer, Aria, Emily, and Hanna. Spencer covets her sister’s gorgeous new boyfriend. Aria is having an affair with her English teacher. Emily is infatuated with the new girl at school. And Hanna is using some ugly tricks to stay beautiful. Deeper and darker still is a horrible secret the girls have shared since sixth grade—a secret they thought was safe forever.

Confession: I have become addicted to the ABC Family adaptation of Pretty Little Liars. Now that it has started its second season, I figured it was safe to read the first book in the series. As it turns out, said book only covers the first few episodes of the show, so I needn’t have delayed.

The series was originally developed by Alloy Entertainment—who is behind most of the YA novel series that have recently become TV shows—to be a kind of teen version of Desperate Housewives. (I’d say that description is pretty apt, except that I think Pretty Little Liars is the better show, largely because when your protagonists do really stupid things it’s more forgivable when they’re sixteen than when they’re thirty-something.) Even though Sara Shepard receives sole authorship credits, interviews suggest that it’s really a team effort.

The first novel sets up the series and the secrets that each of its four protagonists carries. Back in sixth and seventh grade, Aria, Hanna, Spencer, and Emily clustered around their dazzling queen bee, Alison, who alternately beguiled and belittled them (and many others). She goaded them into a dangerous act of vandalism that left a fellow student blinded—an incident henceforth referred to as “the Jenna thing”—and then disappeared the summer before eighth grade. Aria’s family moved to Iceland shortly thereafter and the remaining girls—grieving but a little relieved to be free of Alison’s influence—drifted apart.

Now, three years later, Aria is back and so, possibly, is Alison, since each of the four girls begins receiving mysterious messages (text, e-mail, and handwritten) from someone calling themselves only “A.” A seems to know everyone’s secrets, and there are many. Bohemian Aria is having a secret fling with her English teacher, and also knows that her dad was cheating on her mom three years ago; obedient Emily is secretly attracted to girls; overachieving Spencer is not-so-secretly attracted to her sister’s boyfriend; and Hanna—impatient, impulsive, newly popular Hanna—secretly feels desperately unloved, and has a couple scrapes with the law while trying to conquer her bulimia. Chapters alternate between the characters, and it’s only at the end, when they discover that they’ve all been A’s victims, that they seem poised to renew their friendship.

It’s hard for me to say how I would feel about the novel had I not seen the show. There are differences, of course—a different timeline of events, characters who do not resemble the actresses ultimately chosen to portray them, some siblings for Emily, more bad behavior than ABC Family evidently was comfortable with—but nothing major plot-wise. I think the TV series is more effective at humanizing the characters—especially Hanna, who unexpectedly became my favorite—and making them likeable, but reading the book helped me understand the characters better, especially Aria and Emily.

So, why should you check out Pretty Little Liars, in either of its forms? For the cracktastic soapy goodness with protagonists whom you can still like even if they do ridiculous things like steal their boyfriend’s car because he won’t put out and crash it into a tree. Sure, I’m a little embarrassed to be reading/watching it at my advanced age, but it entertains me, and sometimes that’s enough.

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  1. When I saw this on your twitter I was hoping you’d review it. I’ve been eyeing the books for a while but hadn’t seen any reviews from people I trusted, so I’m glad to see you enjoyed them. TBH I’ve never really read any YA fiction (I jumped straight from pre-teen reading to adult thriller novels), but I enjoy some soapy/cracktastic manga, so I think I’ll have to give this a try when I do my summer reading (for whatever reason I only read novels during summer.. and just manga the rest of the year).

    • I’m delighted to be helpful! I find that the YA genre really has some fun stuff to offer. I plan to read a lot more of it in future—including the rest of the Pretty Little Liars series—and just keep telling myself it’s research for the day I write my own YA novel. 🙂

      I think if you like soapy/cracktastic manga, then you’ll definitely be good to go here. I haven’t read either Peach Girl or Hot Gimmick, but I suspect there might be some similarities there in regards to a “persecuted” heroine.

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