The Lying Game by Sara Shepard

From the front flap:
The worst part of being dead is that there’s nothing left to live for. No more kisses. No more secrets. No more gossip. It’s enough to kill a girl all over again. But I’m about to get something no one else does—an encore performance, thanks to Emma, the long-lost twin sister I never even got to meet.

Now Emma’s desperate to know what happened to me. And the only way to figure it out is to be—to slip into my old life and piece it all together. But can she laugh at inside jokes with my best friends? Convince my boyfriend she’s the girl he fell in love with? Pretend to be a happy, carefree daughter when she hugs my parents good night? And can she keep up the charade, even after she realizes my murderer is watching her every move?

The Lying Game is the second collaborative effort between Sara Shepard and Alloy Entertainment (the team that brought you Pretty Little Liars) to be made into a TV series for ABC Family. I thought that this time I’d try reading the book before starting the show, so here we are.

Emma Paxton was raised by her unstable mother Becky until the age of five, when Becky skipped town while Emma was at a friend’s house. After Becky could not be located, Emma entered the foster care system, where she developed the ability to hold her tongue and become “whatever type of girl the situation needed [her] to be.” Now two weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday, Emma is hoping to make it through her senior year of high school and even dreams of attending USC and becoming an investigative journalist. Her skeevy foster brother has other plans, however, and Emma is soon accused of theft and told she must go when she turns eighteen.

Skeevy also shows Emma a video of a girl who looks just like her engaging in what looks like asphyxiation-for-kicks. From the video, Emma gleans that the girl is called Sutton and lives in Arizona. Googling leads to a Facebook page, and Emma’s message yields an invite from Sutton, who confirms that she was adopted. Without hesitation, Emma packs her bags and heads to Tucson.

Sutton fails to show for their appointed rendezvous, however, and when Sutton’s friends show up to whisk her off to a party, Emma finds herself using her adaptability skills to assume her sister’s role. Conveniently, Emma’s bag containing her cash and ID are stolen at this point. The next morning, she gets a note informing her that Sutton’s dead and that she’d better play along or she’ll be next. Emma tries various times to tell people what’s going on—Sutton’s parents, the police—but because Sutton was such a notorious prankster (more in a malicious way than a fun way) nobody believes her. Soon, Emma grows to suspect Sutton’s circle of friends may have offed their leader, and by the end of the book she’s learned the truth about the video but isn’t any farther along in discovering who killed her sister.

The Lying Game is definitely a guilty pleasure, and I already have the second volume in the series (Never Have I Ever) checked out from the library. Still, there are a couple of things about it that bugged me. The major issue for me is the choice to have Sutton stick around as an unseen-by-Emma ghostly presence. Conveniently, she has access to Emma’s thoughts, and so takes narrative duties, but in a really strange way. She’ll be narrating along omnisciently, referring to herself as “Sutton” or to things that belonged to her as “Sutton’s,” just like Emma might, and then all of a sudden she’ll switch into first person narration, using “me” and “mine.” It’s pretty distracting.

It’s also highly convenient that Sutton can’t remember many details of her past or see anything if Emma can’t see anything. She is, therefore, little use if Emma is in peril, though her timely recollections of snatches of memory do serve to heighten the dramatic tension when readers know something that Emma doesn’t. Mostly, however, I have the inkling that Sutton is there to react remorsefully when Emma discovers some of the horrible things she has done. Is Ghost!Sutton just a ploy to try to get us to care about her? In life, Sutton was a thoroughly nasty and entitled person, which makes this the second Shepard/Alloy series that focuses on the death of a girl so odious one wonders why she had any friends at all.

And that’s the second problem I had with The Lying Game: it’s too much like Pretty Little Liars. Granted, maybe that’s what fans of PLL want, but as I watched the action build towards a social event (a party, naturally) and watched Emma jump to conclusions I had the distinct feeling that I had been through all this before. There’s somewhat less focus on brand name fashions, at least.

Still, as mentioned, I will keep reading. And I’ll check out the show, too. Shepard is good at injecting twists into the story to hook a reader, and I like that Emma is beginning to have feelings for Ethan (a broody, poetry-reading boy) and seems poised to have an ally in her efforts going forward. Then they can jump to conclusions together, just like the girls in PLL!

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