Katherine Patterson is eager to make a fresh start, a new beginning in a place where no one knows the story of the tragic events that befell her family over the past year. She has a new name and has moved in with her aunt, far away from her parents and her past. So when, early in her senior year in high school, Katherine is befriended by the beautiful, charismatic, popular and wealthy Alice, she sees Alice's friendship as another opportunity to remake herself. Alice immediately draws Katherine into her inner circle, making Katherine feel special, a full participant in her glamorous, impulsive lifestyle.
Katherine, Alice, and Alice's sort-of boyfriend Robbie form an inseparable trio for almost all of senior year. But when Katherine finally confides in Alice the story of her younger sister Rachel's recent murder, Alice begins to exhibit a crueler side, appearing to manipulate Katherine's ongoing guilt and regret to maintain a hold over her. Her relationship with Robbie is also laced with cruelty, as she continually abuses his devotion to her.
Things really come to a head, though, when Katherine expands her network of friends outside of Alice's triumvirate to include another girl, Philippa, and, most importantly, her first serious boyfriend, Philippa's boyfriend, Mick. Happier than she's been in recent memory, Katherine, for the first time, can see her way forward to a new life that's not focused on tragedy --- that is, unless Alice has other, more sinister plans.
Given the title of Rebecca James's BEAUTIFUL MALICE, her first novel to be published in the United States, the gradual uncovering of Alice's true colors is hardly surprising or suspenseful. Even the revelation of her true motivations near the end is far from the most compelling or shocking aspect of the story. That's not to say, though, that it’s not worth reading; far from it.
James creates suspense and dramatic tension through her development of character, particularly Katherine's. Katherine's journey from loss and regret to, eventually, a measure of trust and hope is the real story of James's novel, and that journey, beset by wrenching obstacles at every turn, is a compelling one indeed. Although Katherine's story is certainly the most riveting, some supporting characters, particularly Robbie, are fascinating psychological studies in their own right.
BEAUTIFUL MALICE unfolds in three separate narrative strands: Katherine's recounting of Rachel's murder, the unfolding events of the year with Alice, and the story of Katherine's ongoing healing years later. This narrative technique piques readers' interest and also helps build suspense, as they begin to piece together the different chronologies for themselves. Although it's being marketed as an adult novel, BEAUTIFUL MALICE, with its dark undercurrents and characters on the cusp of adulthood, would be eagerly snapped up by many teens as well, who will certainly respond positively to this character study of a young woman caught between the mistakes of the past and the bittersweet promise of a future.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 22, 2010