Dark Rooms

By Lili Anolik

(HarperCollins, $25.99, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair who also has written for Harper’s, Elle, and The Believer. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. Dark Rooms is being touted as a fine debut novel, but readers should know that Anolik, writing as Lili Peloquin, has also published several YA novels in her Innocents series.

What is this book about?

Local readers take note: this thriller/mystery/coming of age story is set at a ritzy private school in Hartford. When 16-year-old Nica Baker, a beautiful wild child type, is murdered, initial signs point to a rejected classmate who apparently confesses in a suicide note. But Nica’s older sister, Grace, does not believe this all-too-neat resolution and keeps imagining that she sees, hears and talks with Nica after her death. Grace drops out of college to work at the school, where her parents also teach, and not so coincidentally, to search out the real killer. What she finds is more than she, or the reader, bargained for.

Why you’ll like it:

Reviewers are praising Anolik’s use of believable dialogue and complex plotting in this novel, which goes beyond the mystery genre to present a gripping story of a teenage girl coming of age and finding herself as she sets out to discover the truth about who murdered her little sister. Hartford area readers, of course, will enjoy the setting and the opportunity to decide how well Anolik has captured local color and local culture.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “The bullet that snuffs out the life of 16-year-old wild child Nica Baker hits her family like a hollow-point, especially psychologically enmeshed big sister Grace, in this suspenseful, sad, and shattering first novel from Vanity Fair contributing editor Anolik. Only a year older, and the yang to Nica’s yin, good girl Grace had been relying on her sister’s charisma and cool to smooth Grace’s way through the emotional minefields of Chandler Academy, the precious Hartford, Conn., private school where their parents both teach. In fact, Grace just can’t let Nica go, repeatedly seeing, hearing, and talking with her during the grief-swamped, drug-muddled months that follow. When a fellow student’s suicide-confession officially closes the case, Grace doesn’t buy it. Deferring her enrollment at Williams, she sifts through the wreckage of their lives, ostensibly to figure out who really killed Nica, but, even more crucially, to find herself. As she starts to penetrate the myriad lies and secrets, the picture that emerges is far from pretty, with a lengthy list of suspects. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, Anolik’s debut will haunt you.

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Gregarious, fun-loving, and athletic Nica, the younger of two sisters, is murdered near their home on the grounds of a New England private school. The crime is quickly solved, but Grace, who has always lived in Nica’s shadow, is not satisfied with the police’s findings and grows obsessed with catching the true killer. However, the story line just scratches the surface of this insightful, complex novel, which is all about angst: broken relationships, class and social issues, the human psyche. The author skillfully develops Grace as a complicated character, using her perspective to get readers to empathize with her reactions to events around her. The other adolescent characters are equally well drawn. Anolik excels in capturing the nonplussed attitudes of teenagers not fully aware of the ramifications of their actions. VERDICT Despite an ambiguous ending that left this crime fiction fan somewhat dissatisfied, Anolik’s haunting debut is tough to put down and will stay with you for a long time.

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “A young woman becomes obsessed with finding the truth behind her sister’s death in Anolik’s thrilling debut. The idyll of a posh Connecticut boarding school is shattered when 16-year-old Nica Baker—gorgeous, wild and effortlessly cool—is found murdered in the graveyard behind her parents’ house. When another student commits suicide, leaving behind a guilty note and an apology, the police consider the case solved: It was unrequited love gone wrong, the tragedy of the loner boy who killed the beautiful faculty-brat girl who didn’t reciprocate his feelings. For Nica’s older sister Grace, though, something doesn’t quite sit right. Too grief-stricken and drugged to start her freshman year at Williams, Grace is shaken from her haze when she stumbles on some information that calls the official story into question. And so Grace—Grace, who’s always been in Nica’s shadow, Grace, who’s always been high-achieving and risk-averse—finds herself consumed with a murder investigation of her own. What had Nica been doing in the weeks before she died, and more importantly, with whom? Why did she break up with her longtime boyfriend without explanation? Where did the tiny tattoo in her armpit come from? Slowly, Grace begins to untangle a web of secrets and betrayals deeper than she could have possibly imagined. In the process, she begins to find her own identity, an identity that is—for the first time—separate from her sister’s. As much as this is a crime drama, it’s also a coming-of-age novel. The plot is high-suspense, but it’s the strength of the characters—and the strength of Anolik’s hypnotic, unfussy prose—that gives the book its lasting force. Wholly absorbing and emotionally rich, this novel dodges Law & Order: Special Victims Unit clichés to deliver something deeply satisfying.”

When is it available?

It’s not hidden in a dark room. It’s on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour, Dwight and Mark Twain branches.

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