by Mariah Fredericks.
Tagline: a thrilling murder mystery inspired by a true life crime.
Some background: In August 1986, the body of eighteen year-old Jennifer Levin was found in New York's Central Park. The police charged another teenager, Robert Chambers, with Levin's murder. The case, dubbed the "Preppie Murder," received extensive coverage in the media and was drawn on for both a made-for-TV movie and a Law and Order episode.
The set-up: Girl in the Park is only loosely inspired by the real-life case. In the book, shy, awkward Rain Donovan is a senior at the exclusive Alcott School in Manhattan. Born with a cleft palate, Rain endured years of surgery and speech therapy and years of teasing by her classmates. An outsider at school, she's learned to keep to herself and keep her mouth firmly shut.
One weekend morning, Rain receives a call from the mother of a classmate, Wendy Geller. Mrs. Geller asks Rain if she knows where her daughter might be. Rain hedges. She and Wendy haven't been close since ninth grade. All Rain knows is that Wendy left a party the night before with Nico Phelps. With his working class background, Nico should be as much of an outsider at school as Rain. But Nico's good looks and charm landed him on all the girls' radars. That evening, Rain's mother breaks the terrible news: a body has been found in the park. Wendy's body.
My thoughts: I was intrigued by the idea of a book inspired by this famous New York murder. As the book opens, Rain and her classmates struggle to come to terms with Wendy's death. Rain, having been one of the last people to see Wendy alive, wants to help solve the murder of her former friend. She's distressed at the way the media is portraying Wendy -- as a party girl -- and curious about Wendy's connection to Nico. She begins talking to the press -- just to set the record about Wendy straight. Also, based on a disturbling incident in her own past involving Nico, she begins to wonder whether he might have killed Wendy.
The book's strongest feature is Rain. She's a unique and vulnerable character -- the kind of character I don't see often enough in YA. Her status as an outsider at school means that she observes a lot about her classmates and as such, feels that she is in a unique position to solve Wendy's murder.
While I found it plausible that Rain wants to help find Wendy's killer, I wished she had followed Nico and Wendy after the party and seen or heard something that gave her a bit more inside knowledge about the case. Still, as she goes around trying to solve the murder, I felt more and more protective of her. I did figure out who the killer was before Rain did, but this only made the book more suspenseful. Every time Rain came into contact with that person, I worried for her.
Yes, Girl in the Park is a murder mystery, but it's also a novel about self-discovery and growing up. Rain is a protagonist readers will root for. Pursuing Wendy's murderer is a way for Rain to finally find her own voice. While she has trouble speaking up for herself, Rain finds the courage to speak up for her friend. This beautifully written book is a welcome addition to both the YA mystery genre and a fresh new take on the coming-of-age tale.