Hannah Sanders is turning sixteen. She’s a good student, she gets good grades and has nice friends, and so her parents trust her. Rather than a big flashy party, they decide to have a sweet sixteen party at their multimillion-dollar home in a wealthy Bay Area suburb (I’m picturing Lafayette or Orinda). She invites four girlfriends over for a slumber party with pizza, cake, and movies. What could possibly go wrong?
Hannah’s parents, Jeff and Kim, have a tension-filled marriage, revealed by Kim’s regular use of Ambien to get to sleep: “…there was far too much tension in her marriage to handle without a good night’s sleep.” Jeff seems to wonder how their marriage got to where it is: “Once, they’d gone to Mexico and Kim had downed tequila shots and danced on the bar in her bra. And then Kim became a mother and it was like flicking a switch. Overnight, Kim became responsible, earnest, doting…boring.”
Kim sets the ground rules for the night, giving a little speech that clearly spells them out: no boys, no booze, and no drugs. Then they pretty much leave the girls to have fun in the rec room. But Jeff wants to be the “cool Dad” so he picks up a bottle of champagne and sneaks it to them, figuring one bottle will give each girl a small glass – again, what could possibly go wrong?
Of course, things DO go wrong, with a tragic accident in the middle of the night that starts the unraveling of the façade of their picture-perfect life. Much like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, my guess is that for many readers there is a bit of schadenfreude as they watch things fall apart. Life in the perfect suburbs – it really can’t be THAT perfect, can it? Doesn’t this family have some of the same issues, flaws and problems as the rest of us? As things spiral downward in the story, we learn of the deception, lies, and betrayal that lie under that façade, for the girls as well as the adults. When the victim’s mother reminds her “You’re the victim here,” her daughter asks her “Don’t you remember high school at all?…No one likes a fucking victim!”
After the party, “Hannah had experienced a perspective shift. Despite the values her mother had tried to instill in her, getting straight A’s wasn’t actually the most important thing in the world. Survival, that’s what mattered. Getting through the gauntlet of tenth grade with your self-esteem intact was what counted.” When she is encouraged by her counselor to do the right thing socially following the party, she’s torn: “Hannah didn’t want to be the girl with strength of character. She wanted to be the cool girl, the popular girl, the girl with the hot boyfriend.” At the same time, Kim (Hannah’s mom) finds her self dealing with both the teenagers and the adults and realizes “There is only one thing as mean as teenagers: soccer moms.”
Told from the alternating perspectives of Hannah, each of her parents, and the victim’s mother, the pacing of the story is just right. We lean of the horrific accident early on, and we know exactly what caused it. And details about both current and past behaviors of individual adults are revealed subtly, and only later do we learn how these will impact the unfolding drama.
I was in the mood for some escapist fiction, something that was not overly challenging but was completely entertaining. This fit the bill on all counts, and I appreciate having an opportunity to read an advance copy of The Party, thanks to Gallery/Scout Press and NetGalley. Five stars for the combination of domestic suburban drama, moral dilemma, suburban skewering, and all-around good story.