All These Beautiful Strangers by Elizabeth Klehfoth, published by Penguin Random House
Charlie Calloway has it all: a wealthy family, private education, loyal friends. Her family name is an exclusive brand and she is privileged by association. ‘I [am] a Calloway,’ Charlie states, ‘I wasn’t born and bred and raised to be average.’ The plot centres on three main characters across three decades: seventeen-year-old Charlie in 2017, her mother Grace in 2007, and her father Alistair in 1996. A dark mystery entwines the three narratives: with barely a trace left behind, Grace disappeared when Charlie was only seven years old. With surveillance footage showing Grace cleaning out the couple’s safety deposit boxes the day before her disappearance, Charlie has been led to believe her mother ran away and never looked back. Not satisfied with this explanation, Charlie launches her own investigation and soon unravels a series of clues that suggest Grace’s disappearance is much more sinister than first believed. Now a junior at Knollwood Augustus Prep, Charlie is also beginning the initiation process for an exclusive secret society, known only as the ‘As’. As the danger intensifies over both the high-stakes initiation into the As and the complex investigation into her mother’s past, Charlie’s personal values and familial loyalties are tested to the extreme.
All These Beautiful Strangers is US-writer Elizabeth Klehfoth’s debut novel. A YA mystery with a thriller twist, All These Beautiful Strangers is sure to appeal to those readers who enjoy Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars.
It may have a beautiful cover, but All These Beautiful Strangers does not have pretty characters: nearly all of them are selfish, pretentious, egotistical – even physically abusive. This deliberate portrayal of ‘difficult’ characters puts the reader at odds with their narratives, and it is tricky to feel sympathy or compassion for any of the main three. While Charlie is the most engaging simply for her dogged determination, even she is a self-confessed narcissist. Her snobbish attitude towards those she sees as ‘below’ her is frustrating to read. ‘Normal people could have their sensitivity and vulnerability and feelings and live their pretty little lives,’ Charlie thinks at one point, ‘but that was all they were ever going to be. Normal. Average. And I’d never wanted to be average.’ While we also delve into the first-person perspective of arty Grace and bank mogul Alistair, both characters are underdeveloped and appear as merely tools to aid an unsuccessful plot.
All These Beautiful Strangers constantly reaches for things it is not and ends up being a confused concoction guided by unlikeable characters. Characters are introduced but never fleshed out (Charlie apparently has a sister called Seraphina who is conveniently located at a different boarding school and is only mentioned a few times), and the dark and supposedly alluring aspects of the book resolve as merely uncomfortable. The lack of tension and atmosphere make the second half of the novel difficult to read.
While all of this can be forgiven if a reader is merely looking for a light, relatively absorbing read, what cannot be forgiven is the flippant discussion of sensitive subjects. The plot is heavily based around teenage suicide, and there should be content warnings for the offhand way in which it is depicted, discussed and dismissed. Readers should also be aware of the presence of graphic domestic violence; a teenage ‘game’ called the ‘Board of Conquests’ in which female students are placed on a board and teenage boys aim to ‘be the first to get four in a row’; and Charlie being forced to kiss her cousin, Leo, and the scene becoming highly voyeuristic – not only uncomfortable for the characters ,but also for the reader.
In a novel that tries too hard to cater for its audience, Klehfoth’s plotting becomes confused and coincidental, and Charlie’s amateur sleuthing declines into redundancy when Grace and Alistair’s chapters reveal the answers to the mystery before Charlie can discover them. In a story where clichés abound, the ending of All These Beautiful Strangers is dramatic and surprising if only for its implausibility.