“Grief is a kind of war, I think now. Loss is like a bullet. A person can only take so much.”
Molly Mavity is not a normal teenage girl. For one thing, her father is a convicted murderer, and his execution date is fast approaching. For another, Molly refuses to believe that her mother is dead, and she waits for the day when they’ll be reunited . . . despite all evidence that this will never happen.
Pepper Yusef is not your average teenage boy. A Kuwaiti immigrant with epilepsy, serious girl problems, and the most useless seizure dog in existence, he has to write a series of essays over the summer . . . or fail out of school.
And Ava Dreyman—the brave and beautiful East German resistance fighter whose murder at seventeen led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall—is unlike anyone you’ve met before.
When Molly gets a package leading her to Pepper, they’re tasked with solving a decades-old mystery: find out who killed Ava, back in 1989. Using Ava’s diary for clues, Molly and Pepper realize there’s more to her life—and death—than meets the eye. Someone is lying to them. And someone out there is guiding them along, desperate for answers.
TW: murder, graphic depiction of bodily functions, serious injury, suicide, gun violence, self-harm, gore
It looks my long streak of 4-5 star books really is at an end, because unfortunately, this really didn’t manage to reach the bar. I wanted to like it, I really did, especially since it was a gift from a friend. You always want to enjoy something someone else gives you. But that just wasn’t the case this time.
We can start on the positive side, though, by saying that the premise was fantastic. The idea of solving what’s effectively an international cold case murder had me hooked, partly because I can never say no to a good mystery, partly because it was that good of an idea. Molly and Pepper spend the book trying to solve the murder of Ava Dreyman, a German girl who was instrumental in bringing down the Berlin Wall, and they get into some deep, deep territory by doing so. That much I absolutely loved, and honestly, it was what kept me going. If the concept hadn’t been as strong as it was, if I hadn’t wanted so badly to get the answers, I probably would have DNFed the book. The mystery was so strong, though, strong enough to keep me from wandering off to another book.
Of course, this made the chapters from Ava’s POV, taken from her diary, all the more interesting. It was hard to believe she was able to keep her diary in all the places she went to, one place in particular coming to mind (won’t spoil it for you!), but her work as essentially a resistance fighter, and a teenager at that, was incredibly fascinating.
Additionally, Oakes has managed to make a story told mostly in second person work! Pepper’s chapters are written to the woman in charge of his summer school program-thing in the form of essays, and Molly’s are letters to Pepper that form something of a confessional. Second person is extremely difficult to do without coming off as corny or trying too hard, and I’m really impressed by how well it worked here.
However, I think those were the only merits of the book, which is a shame.
So much of what happens in Pepper and Molly’s POVs feels wildly unrealistic for two teenagers to be getting up to without raising any red flags (lmao they’re flying internationally with less than a day’s notice with tickets from a total stranger they can’t seem to meet yet? yeah right, sure), and that pulled me out of the narrative and into real time, where I was asking “how the hell has any of this actually happened without some kind of adult intervention?” Worse still, so much of what happened was a really expanded goose chase that stems from adults refusing to tell children the whole truth, and I am SICK OF THAT. It’s a sucky trope, and if the entire plot hinges on adults not telling the truth to kids who are asking questions, then I am not gonna like it. It’s a flimsy excuse used for plot advancement. Enough.
Also, I feel like there were a ridiculous amount of casually loose ends or weird changes. Molly and her cousin Margaret have a dynamic I don’t even remotely understand after it changed (why did it change? I honestly don’t get it), and the dynamic between Molly’s parents and between Molly and her parents feels really shallow and under-explored given how important they are to this mystery.
Oh, and did I mention that the mystery is given away about a quarter into the book? Maybe I only caught it because I’m in the habit of looking for the clues when I read mysteries, but this was just bald-faced. I won’t spoil it, since I wouldn’t want any potential readers to have that plot twist stolen from them by a review, but I will say that if it hadn’t been joked about so early on, the actual reveal probably would have felt stronger. As it was, I saw it coming way too far in advance, which sapped a lot of my enjoyment from the ending of the book.
Like I said, I really wished I could have liked this book. It sounds like Oakes’s debut, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly was absolutely stunning, and I can believe it. There’s so much potential here. It’s just that the execution let me down terribly, and I can’t justify giving it a higher rating than 2.5 stars when so much of it was a disappointment. What a shame.
Have you read The Arsonist before? What did you think? If not, tell me what your favorite mystery book is!