By Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, A psychological thriller about a psychological study (sort of)
I’d been looking forward to reading An Anonymous Girl by writing team Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen for some time. Their debut novel, The Woman Between Us, was a twisty roller coaster ride of a book, and the premise of An Anonymous Girl seemed up my alley.
(I just posted a review of The Wife Between Us a few days ago, if you’re curious about that as well.)
In An Anonymous Girl, Jessica is a struggling makeup artist who agrees to participate in a psychological study on ethics and morality being led by a Dr. Shields.
It starts as a two-session questionnaire, but she slowly gets drawn into Dr. Shield’s extended study. Jess finds herself subject to Dr. Shield’s tests that she grows increasingly uncomfortable with, she’s forced to confront her past, and soon she finds herself questioning Dr. Shield’s motives…
Book Review: the Premise
I was intrigued initially by the premise, but the story turned out to be quite different than described. The book’s blurb indicates that it explores the “line between what is real” and what’s part of the test, but that’s…not actually what the book is about.
Apart from a minor instance, it’s pretty clear throughout the book what’s part of the test. Instead, what’s at question is Dr. Shield’s motives.
To be honest, it felt a little like a bait-and-switch. Without giving anything away, if you read Hendrick and Pekkanen’s previous book, you’ll know it was about a woman obsessing over a man. I was a little disappointed, then, when I quickly realized this book goes straight back into the same territory about a quarter of the way in.
I loved the idea of a mystery wrapped up in a psychological study, so when the psychological study component very quickly disintegrates in favor of a whole lot of man-obsession, it was a let-down at first.
Book Review: Everything Else
Okay, so putting aside that issue, how is the book? Well, it wasn’t as twisty as The Wife Between Us, but it’s definitely an intense and gripping story. There’s a lot going on and it moves quickly, so it took a little concentration to read. Trying to keep up with the many plot elements and mounting questions is all part of what drags you into the story and keeps you there.
An Anonymous Girl reads like a polished book. It’s clear time and effort has gone into creating personalities for the characters and giving them decent dialogue, even despite their mystery/thriller surroundings. Jess is struggling financially but essentially trying to do the right thing. Dr. Shields has some semblance of a “fairy-tale” life from an outsider’s perspective, but obviously things are never what they seem in those situations. They were both fleshed out in a way that characters in very plot-focused thrillers sometimes aren’t.
The end isn’t as satisfying as some mysteries and it leaves a lot of dangling threads, but the big questions do get answered. This book didn’t twist and turn the way The Wife Between Us did, instead it’s more of steadily building sense of mystery and mounting questions that you’re continuously untangling.
And while I liked An Anonymous Girl overall, but I thought the end wasn’t much of a surprise. There was still the question of how exactly the situation would get resolved, but there wasn’t the big dramatic “THIS CHARACTER WAS DEAD ALL ALONG”-type twists that a lot of recent hits have had.
An Aside: An Anonymous Girl on Audiobook
I read this as an ebook, but I’ve heard a few recommendations about listening to it on audiobook instead. There’s some long stretches where it’s written as if Dr. Shields is directing her thoughts to Jess in a sort of semi-second person (I’m not an English major, I’m sure there’s a specific name for it that I don’t know), so stylistically it would make sense that this book works well as an audiobook.
If you want a sample, you can listen to an excerpt of it.
Read it or Skip it?
I say this about a lot of mystery/thrillers, but once again, this one is firmly for the mystery buffs. (I mention this only because I know some people come here for the literary fiction reviews, and I just want to be clear about what type of book this is so people can choose wisely.)
The plot is not realistic, but it’s a fun, intense read. Despite the bait-and-switch of the premise, I still liked it, though it had less twists and certainly less dramatic twists than Hendricks and Pekkanen’s previous novel, The Wife Between Us.
The dangling threads at the end of the novel bothered me a little, but the polished writing and the well-developed main characters make up for it somewhat. If you’ve ever been young, trying to hustle to make ends meet and move your life forward, you’ll probably identify with Jess.
For fans of psychological thrillers, this is a good one for a group-read or as a book club read with other mystery lovers, since I bet people will have some very divergent views. See it on Amazon.
Have you read this or are you thinking about reading it? Share your thoughts below!
P.S. This book was on my list of Best Book Club Picks for 2019.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Chapters 1-8Jessica Faris is a struggling makeup artist, 28, living in New York City. A client (Taylor) is planning on skipping out on a psych study that pays $500. Jessica goes instead (needs the money). There, she meets Ben, the prof's (Dr. Shields). She's told she's subject #52 in a study of morality and ethics. Jessica answers honestly. There's two sessions, and then she's done. Afterwards, she meets up with her family. She finds out her dad has lost his job. Jess also has a younger sister, Becky, who has significant medical bills. Becky had a traumatic brain injury when younger, and Jess feels guilt over it. Jess goes out with her best friend Lizzie and meets a guy, Noah. The next day is Thanksgiving, which Jessica spends at their Aunt's house. Her cousin’s husband flirts with her. (No clue why this is in there, since it never gets mentioned again.) Dr. Shields texts her, asking if she'd be willing to continue the study. She says yes. After, Dr. Shields asks if she'd agree to increasing the scope of her participation in exchange for much more compensation. She agrees.
Chapters 9-20Before meeting Dr. Shields, she does some research. She then goes to NYU to see her in person and follows her to a restaurant out of curiosity. Later, Jessica tracks down Taylor and talks to Amy, Taylor's friend who took a class from Dr. Shields. They start meeting at Dr. Shield's office and the sessions progress like regular therapy, except Jessica is getting paid for it, and she gives Jess gifts. Jessica tells the story of her sister falling out the window, resulting in her injury. Jessica was supposed to be watching her, but locked her in her room so she could run out and buy a magazine. Becky tried to climb out the window. Her parents still don't know she wasn't home when it happened. Dr. Shields gives her a bottle of nail polish and a present of an expensive cashmere wrap which matches stuff that she owns. (It’s never explained why Dr. Shields gives her matching stuff.) Unbeknownst to Jessica, Dr. Shields was previously married, but is now separated. She found out he (Thomas) cheated on her when she got a text clearly not intended for her ("See you tonight, Gorgeous"), and he moved out a few months ago. Her name was Lauren. She works at a clothing boutique He claims it was a one-time thing.
Chapters 21-28Dr. Shields sends Jessica out to a bar, where then she's told to flirt with a married man. He chats with her, but rejects her, saying he's happily married. Jess is uncomfortable, but Dr. Shields writes her a big check. Jess tells Dr. Shields about being sexually assaulted previously by her boss (Gene French), who is now a well-known theater director. He had accused her of stealing something which he knew she didn't take and asked her to pull up her shirt so he could check. Later, she meets up with Noah and feels content after he cooks for her. Dr. Shields meets with Thomas. They are separated but trying to reconcile. Dr. Shield feeds him a torte which sets off his mild nut allergy and uses the opportunity to go through his phone. She asks Jessica to call a few of the numbers (claiming it’s for the study) to try to get some information. She's trying to find out if Thomas is still cheating. Thomas and Dr. Shields also discuss Subject 5. Subject 5 is a previous participant in the study. Subject 5's family hired a private investigator who has been asking for Dr. Shield's notes on Subject 5, which she has refused to provide. Dr. Shields meets with her parents. She used to have a younger sister, Danielle, who died in a bad accident many years ago. She asks her father to find Jessica's father a job. Dr. Shields uses the potential for a job to mollify Jess when she starts to get uncomfortable with the “study”. Plus, with each assignment Jess is paid more and more.
Chapters 29 - 35Next, Jessica is asked to go to an art exhibition and leave 30 minutes later. When she gets there, a woman has been injured outside. She's unsure whether this is a test, but if she stops to help, she will be late. She calls 911 and asks another stranger to let her know if the woman is okay. At the exhibition, she meets a man and they talk about the art. It was actually meant to be a run-in with Jessica and Thomas, but she spoke to the wrong man. (Jess doesn't know about the situation with Dr. Shields and Thomas, and she doesn't know she's being used as a pawn to test him). When the stranger texts Jess to let her know the woman is okay, she ends up getting a drink with him and sleeping with him. Dr. Shields then sets up an assignment for Jess to find a man in a diner and get his number. When she arrives, she realizes the man is the stranger she slept with (Thomas). After she leaves, Thomas suspects what’s going on because she had Dr. Shield’s book. He texts her to say Dr. Shields is dangerous and tells her not to say anything.
Chapters 37 - 46Jess meets with Dr. Shields and doesn’t tell her she slept with Thomas. Thomas surprises Dr. Shields by cooking for her, but also asks Jessica repeatedly to meet to discuss the situation. Jess meets with Ben, who says the study was terminated and he no longer works for Dr. Shields. He tells her he signed a non-disclosure, and can’t tell her anything, but she should try to find her file. Jess also continues seeing Noah. She finally talks to Thomas who says he wants to leave Dr. Shields but it’s not that simple. Thomas tells Jess that the last girl (Subject 5) she took under her wing killed herself. Jess decides she’s done. While the money is good, it’s not worth the trouble. She goes to tell Dr. Shields, but her mom calls to let her know that Dr. Shields has paid for her family to go to a resort over the holidays and she’s ecstatic. Reluctantly, Jess agrees to continue with the “study.” However, Jess spies on Thomas and Dr. Shields and thinks something is up. Thomas does not act like a man who wants to be rid of his wife. She believes he is deceiving her, but doesn’t understand why he would.
Chapters 47 - 53Jess does some research and finds the name of Subject 5: Katherine April Voss, known as “April”. She was 23 when she died. She goes through April’s Instagram and sees a photos of a man asleep in her bed: it’s Thomas. Jess tells Dr. Shields that she knows Thomas is her husband, but doesn’t mention that she slept with him or that Thomas told her. She says she figured it out. Dr. Shields confesses that it’s true and that he cheated on her and now she’s testing him. She says that the woman was in her 30s (Jess knows April was 23). Dr. Shields tells Jess to plan a meeting with Thomas, and she does. However, before that meeting, Jess has a pre-meeting with Thomas that Dr. Shields does not know about. He admits to cheating, both with Lauren (the 30-year-old) and April. Jess and Thomas then engineer their next meeting where they will meet and fake a conversation (in case Dr. Shields is watching her; plus, they want witnesses). During the fake convo, Thomas tells her to leave him alone, and that he’s happily married. Jess reports back the fake convo to Dr. Shields, and Dr. Shields feels comforted.
Chapters 54 - 62Jess is still uncomfortable with April’s death. Was it even a suicide? She talks to April’s mom and finds out April overdosed on Vicodin. Mrs. Voss says she’s still looking for answers as to why she killed herself. Next, Jess breaks into Dr. Shields house with a key Thomas gave her. Jess wants her file; Thomas wants April’s file. She finds them both. She discovers that Thomas slept with April a few days before she became a subject. Dr. Shields gets home and notices her files are slightly off from where she left them. She wonders if Thomas moved them. Dr. Shields also wonders if Jess has been dishonest with her. Jess tracks down Lauren in her store. Lauren denied sleeping with Thomas. She says Thomas bought a bunch of clothes and returned them the next day. Jessica confronts Thomas at his office (she withheld the last few pages of April’s file to use as leverage). Thomas says he faked it in hopes Dr. Shields would leave him. He thought she would be upset if he knew It was a younger woman. Thomas slept with April and she got attached. She must have sought out Dr. Shields, though he didn’t realize that April was Dr. Shield’s subject #5 until the private investigator got involved. Dr. Shields sees her go to his office and realizes Jess has lied to her. She gets Jess fired from her job, and then convinces Noah that she’s crazy and immoral by telling lies and showing him texts from when she was told to hit on guys. However, when Jess confronts Dr. Shields, she denies an involvement in getting her fired or getting rid of Noah. She gives Jess a Vicodin pill. From the files, Jess known April talked to Dr. Shields the day she died, but she doesn't know why April took the pills.
Chapters 63 - 65Dr. Shields remembers how Danielle was selfish and stole her boyfriend, Ryan. Danielle used to sneak out and leave the kitchen door unlocked. When she snuck out with Ryan, Dr. Shields locked the door so she couldn't get back in. Instead, Danielle went back to Ryan (who had been drinking)'s car, got into an accident and they both died. Jess recalls that April's mom mentioned she had been in and out of therapy. She then realizes Thomas must have been her therapist, which is why he tried so hard to conceal the affair. (She knows because April mom brings up song lyrics April had once asked her about. It's on a mug in Thomas's office, indicating April has been there. The logic of this part of the book is a little iffy, IMO.) Dr. Shields recalls how April admitted to sleeping with a married man. Dr. Shields knew she was being evasive. When April describes something the man said (telling her she'll finds someone who is her "true light"), Dr. Shields realized it was Thomas. (He used the same phrase in his vows. Again, I think the logic of this is questionable.)
Chapters 66 - 69Dr. Shields demands that Jess come over. Thomas is there, too. She says she has dirt on both of them and wants the truth. (Before she goes, Jess tells her parents the truth about Becky. They say it's not her fault.) For Jess, Dr. Shields has proof Jess broke into her home. Then, she claims some jewelry is missing. Dr. Shields is using her traumatic experience with Gene French (where she was falsely accused of stealing) to try to demoralize her. Jess sees that Dr. Shields must have similarly tried to use April's traumatic experiences against her in order to get her to commit suicide. For Thomas, Dr. Shields reveals 1) that she knew about April, and 2) has office entry logs that prove she was Thomas's patient. Jess realizes Dr. Shields killed April partially to protect Thomas -- April could have gotten his license revoked for sleeping with a client. Dr. Shields separates them and tells them to each tell her if they slept together. Jess says yes (truth). Thomas says no (lying). However, Dr. Shields insists on still claiming Jess stole the jewelry, even though she told the truth. Thomas tells her to let Jess go, but she won't. It leads Thomas to realize that Dr. Shields is nuts. When Jess brings up the Vicodin, he realizes Dr. Shields gave April the Vicodin. Thomas tells Dr. Shields it's over and that he'll tell the police Jess is innocent. Jess leaves. When Dr. Shields realizes she has lost Thomas, it's over for her. She commits suicide that night.
EpilogueNoah accepts Jess's explanation, but is no longer interested in her. Jess remembers how Dr. Shields initially noted that she was driven by money. Jess goes to Thomas and demands a large sum of money to compensate for the ordeal (she brings with her April's funeral program with the quote that's on his mug, implying she'll reveal that April was his client otherwise). She knows that he inherited his wife's estate including multi-million-dollar home. He agrees.
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