“Welcome to dinner, and again, congratulations on being selected. Now you must do the selecting.”
I hadn’t actually heard of this novel before, but saw it was a new offering on my library app, along with a comparison to One of Us Is Lying, a book that I reasonably enjoyed, coupled with a juicy-sounding concept. And given that I recently binged the Netflix Series, Elite, you might say I enjoy soapy teen dramas involving murder, secrets, the whole shebang from time to time. Yet, despite a really intriguing premise that could result in a range of focuses for the characters, I ultimately didn’t love this one, and felt myself heading towards what I suspected was a disappointing conclusion throughout the back-half of the story. This novel really wants to have some teeth to it, and while it presents a lot of serious topics (murder, drug use, bullying, suicide, abusive families, etc), the need for a surprise twist, along with a collection of characters that behave repetitively as little-more than high school YA stereotypes made all of that seem so surface-level. The opportunity and potential was there, but never quite stuck in a meaningful way for me.
All Your Twisted Secrets throws the reader in the setup quickly: 6 teenagers are invited to a special dinner under the guise that they have won a scholarship. But when the doors lock them in at a deserted restaurant, the group soon finds a syringe of poison, a bomb, and a note saying that they have one hour to choose someone among them to die, otherwise all of them will die when the bomb goes off. At first they think it’s all a prank, or maybe an escape-room test of some kind as a part of the scholarship they are supposed to be receiving. But when everything just seems too real, the group either has to figure out how to work together to escape, or turn on each other to decide who should die. But the question constantly lingers: what do these 6 have in common despite knowing each other from school? There is a queen bee, a star athlete, a loner, a stoner, the valedictorian, and a music nerd name Amber whose POV we are viewing the story from. Who could possibly have wanted to do this to all of them and why? In a series of flashbacks we see the year leading up to this fateful event, as secrets are exposed, motives unraveled, and connections between the students brought to light. We also see the how they react to this event as the timer counts down, flipping between panic, accusation, anger, fear, resignation, and determination, as they learn each new piece of information.
Ultimately this novel aims to create a dialogue about the pressures young people feel, but more than anything it’s about bullying and being conscious of how our actions affect others. This is a good message, if not done in a very heavy-handed and a bit of an outlandish way in order to teach the characters a “lesson” about their behaviors (some of which are really just their own personal demons or insecurities that they need to work through and truly don’t harm anyone else?). In fact, using the term-heavy handed makes me think that maybe some of the content in this novel is a bit over-explained, which is not per say bad if you don’t think the audience will get it, but doesn’t leave so much room for nuance as the premise and issues that come to light had potential for. It’s very much a queen-bee gone overboard story which is fine, but also leaves something to be desired in it’s presentation of the issues at hand.
And as for answering the question of who orchestrated all of this, as I was reading I realized that there were two general scenarios: it could either be someone on the outside of this circle who isn’t given much space to show themselves in what we read from Amber’s POV, therefore coming as a twist despite the person being “there the whole time”, or it could be one of the people in the room to really drive a point home and also come across as a twist. As I mentioned earlier, I realized just under half of the way through this book that either reveal wouldn’t feel satisfying to me unless some serious development happened in the later parts of the novel. But the problem is that despite everything that happened leading up to this, the characters are generally pretty stereotypical, with maybe one little layer of depth to be added, and they never really push beyond this stereotype in either the flashbacks or the current situation. This traumatic event should make them change and grow but, will it? It honestly doesn’t feel like they go through all that much growth by the end, and it’s unclear if they will in the aftermath either.
All that said, I really was engaged with this novel and wanted to see how it played out: in fact, I finished it in just 2 short sittings. The premise has enough mystery and a wild enough set up (I mean come on, it’s pretty elaborate to do to a bunch of high school students, and I live for a juicy melodrama), but the result doesn’t quite fit the potential we are presented with in the setup, nor do the characters really do much for me beyond representing some pretty static and basic character types that never really progress all that much: maybe they have one or two moments of breakthrough, but nothing that feels like it’s really going to stick before reverting back to their standby labels. So in the end, I have to give All Your Twisted Secrets middling 2.5 stars.