From the opening scene in the satisfying young adult thriller People Like Us, the reader is in for an exciting and eerie read: A spirited, traditional skinny dip on Halloween night abruptly turns sinister with the gruesome discovery of a dead girl floating in a lake.
The setting is Bates Academy, a selective boarding school for girls, where Kay, a high-achieving student, is working hard to get a soccer scholarship to a top college. As a senior, Kay has the confidence that comes with belonging: She is part of a clique of smart, ambitious young women. However, author Dana Mele ’02 reminds us that in high school, popular students can be terribly mean to each other, often in the name of good fun. Kay is known to make jokes at the expense of others, and the jokes always catch on because “everything we do eventually does.” She and her friends “hold more social capital than the rest of the student body combined,” but that means very little when the police begin to question them about the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death. Kay becomes a suspect in the investigation, framed perhaps by a student who holds a grudge against her.
With one of many nods to Hamlet, Mele heightens the mystery: Kay receives an email from the dead girl’s account, demanding that she seek revenge, regardless of the cost. Suddenly everything Kay cares about—from her closest friendship with Brie, a girl whom she loves deeply, to her grades, her soccer prowess, and her college goals—is at risk. When a second girl is murdered and details of the crimes unfold, Kay finds that there is no one she can trust, no one, in fact, whom she truly knows: “Anyone could be a killer under certain circumstances.”
Who is Kay, formerly known as Katie, and later referred to as Katherine? Identity itself becomes the central theme as dark, amid surprising revelations about many of the students. As Kay says, “I’ve done other things. Bad things. Maybe worse. And I’ve always been able to begin again.” As it turns out, Kay is no beginner when it comes to witnessing untimely deaths or coping with tragedy, and the reader is left wondering what kind of person Kay will become next.
Full of suspense, angst, and fast-paced drama, People Like Us depicts teenagers dealing with issues ranging from the typical (homework stress and sore throats) to the intriguing (sexual attraction to boys and girls) to the truly terrifying (a killer in their midst). Dive in, but check the water first.
Poeppel is the author of the novels Small Admissions and Limelight.