Friday, September 2, 2022

REVIEW: They'll Never Catch Us (book) by Jessica Goodman

They'll Never Catch Us is technically marketed as a YA thriller, but it might be more accurate to call it a YA family drama/mystery.


Stella and Ellie Steckler were incredibly close when they were little. They had to be: their parents had their own concerns (their mom was an alcoholic and their dad suffered from depression), so there were times when it felt like they could only rely on each other. Stella, the older sister, remembers the bad times a little more clearly than Ellie, and as they get older and their parents aim for a more normal and stable life, it's Stella who reacts by turning inside herself and becoming harder and more focused while Ellie is more social. They both get into cross country running, although Stella's better and has a good chance at getting a college scholarship.

Until she doesn't. An incident involving another cross country runner results in Stella losing her chance at the scholarship and gaining a reputation for being violent and angry. Ellie and Stella begin to grow apart. Stella starts to view Ellie as competition, while Ellie's still struggling to get out of Stella's shadow.

Mila Keene, a new girl at their school, is a cross country star who's a threat to both of their scholarship chances. Despite that, they both find themselves opening up to her in unexpected ways...and then suddenly Mila disappears, and people start talking. Did she just run away? Or did an angry and violent Stella kill her to remove some of the competition? Or is this a sign that the person who killed several female cross country runners ten years ago and was never caught is now back and killing again?

I bought this expecting a YA thriller with tension, murder, and lies. This turned out to be more of a YA mystery with a great deal of focus on sisterly bonds and the pressures and expectations teen girls face. Mila didn't disappear until almost halfway through the book, and since I was approaching this as a thriller, that felt like an eternity.

The second half of the book was much better than the first, both because I'd begun to realign my genre expectations and because the disappearance that the publisher's description had promised had finally happened. Also, Stella, in particular, became a much more sympathetic character, to the point that parts of the second half were downright excruciating. She was trying so hard to move forward, but she'd been labeled "violent Stella" and every move she made was automatically a mistake.

Although the full details of what happened to Mila and who killed her took me by surprise, there were aspects that were utterly predictable. This book's greatest strength wasn't its mystery, but rather the way it depicted Ellie and Stella's complicated relationship and the things they and the other cross country girls were going through. Whether it was true or not, they all viewed this (high school, cross country running) as their one big window of opportunity to leave their small town and the roles it forced upon them behind, and every one of them responded to the pressure in different ways. Stella and Ellie got the most attention, but several of the other girls got a bit fleshed out as well.

The toughest thing about this book was how much female rage it had simmering under the surface. Stella's was the most obvious - in the midst of all the ways others judged her, the only thing she could do was focus on her goal to win and get a college scholarship, but that caused its own problems. Ellie's rage was more hidden but felt almost as strong as Stella's. She'd had a secret relationship with another girl's boyfriend (not really a spoiler, it was revealed early on), and although they'd both made mistakes, somehow they always became more her problems than his. It got to the point where I wanted to finish the book so that I could stop feeling so angry on behalf of the Steckler girls. All that anger was exhausting.

Overall, I thought this was good, but I wish the first half had been tighter and that I hadn't gone into it with "thriller" expectations. There were aspects that could have been dropped or maybe given less attention. Also, maybe this was on purpose, but Stella and Ellie's POVs felt similar enough that I frequently got them confused - not what I expected since the publisher's description made them sound like polar opposites.

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