book review: the cheerleaders by kara thomas

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas
Delacorte Press, 384 pp.
Published July 31, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this title from the publisher for review consideration. This did not inform or influence my opinion in any way.

There are no more cheerleaders in the town of Sunnybrook.

First there was the car accident—two girls gone after hitting a tree on a rainy night. Not long after, the murders happened. Those two girls were killed by the man next door. The police shot him, so no one will ever know why he did it. Monica’s sister was the last cheerleader to die. After her suicide, Sunnybrook High disbanded the cheer squad. No one wanted to be reminded of the girls they lost.

That was five years ago. Now the faculty and students at Sunnybrook High want to remember the lost cheerleaders. But for Monica, it’s not that easy. She just wants to forget. Only, Monica’s world is starting to unravel. There are the letters in her stepdad’s desk, an unearthed, years-old cell phone, a strange new friend at school. . . . Whatever happened five years ago isn’t over. Some people in town know more than they’re saying. And somehow Monica is at the center of it all.

There are no more cheerleaders in Sunnybrook, but that doesn’t mean anyone else is safe.

A thriller doesn't always need a gimmicky twist to leave the reader satisfied. Sometimes that very twist can weaken the entire novel, if an author abandons more elementary story elements like character and pacing in favor of a showstopping reveal. Conversely, you may suspect or outright guess the conclusion of a mystery before it's revealed but still have a good time getting to that conclusion. The Cheerleaders neither tips its hand early nor does it sell out on a mind-bending twist. With a relatively straightforward mystery at the center, it really succeeds with its main characters and the questions it wisely leaves unanswered.

As early as the first chapter, I knew that Monica would become one of my favorite contemporary YA protagonists. Witty and vulnerable, restless and disconnected from her friends, she's still struggling to accept that her sister would end her own life five years after the events that disbanded Sunnybrook's cheerleading squad. Rooted in a persistent inner fire, this conviction guides Monica down logical and illogical paths as she attempts to prove that all five deaths are related. While this mystery drives the plot, The Cheerleaders is just as much about Monica's grief and the difficulties of growing up as it is about the dead girls. Her contradictory needs for solitude and companionship, the desire for a lost childhood and the respect of adulthood all come together in a broiling mix of emotion.

Her new friend Ginny might be more of an enigma, but her willingness to bend the rules and help Monica discover the truth are immediately endearing. For the most part all of the supporting characters have dynamic personalities, even those who drift along the distant orbits of Monica's search.

Thomas also includes a whole multitude of issues faced by teenagers that, for whatever reason, don't often make appearances in "lighter" entertainment. A sub-plot involving one character's choice to terminate a pregnancy after a summer fling was particularly well done. Both the decision to undergo the procedure and the choices that placed her in that position are never presented as character flaws. This alongside other situations like alcohol, drugs, and the volatility of teenage friendships combine to acknowledge that high school has its own unique set of pitfalls for teenagers to navigate as they grow into young adults.

Another added element of realism adds to the thrills. Don't panic: by the novel's end, we know the truth about how and why each girl died. But there are smaller, ancillary questions that go unanswered. In The Cheerleaders, as in life, sometimes terrible things happen to people who don't deserve them and the families of Sunnybrook are as incapable of rationalizing them as we are. This melancholic sheen may keep a happy ending in check, but it also doesn't require any suspension of disbelief. Both the characters and the mystery at the heart of The Cheerleaders are deeply satisfying, delivering a well-crafted YA thriller that will keep you up into the wee hours of the morning!


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