Nice Girls begins with “Ivy League” Mary moving back home from her prestigious college, moving back home with her father in disgrace after being expelled for fighting. Almost as soon as she is back in her affluent suburban hometown of Liberty Lake, a fellow classmate and childhood best friend disappears. Olivia Willand left Mary behind before high school, so there is this complex remembered friendship mixed with anger and resentment for being left behind.
Mary gets a job at the grocery store, becomes friends with another former classmate, a Black man who was destined for a pro career before derailed. She learns that a Black woman disappeared suspiciously earlier but the police were completely unconcerned insisting she had run away to escape her responsibilities, including her newborn son. Mary keeps investigating, certain she can solve the problem.
I enjoyed Nice Girls and the mystery was fair. We learn what Mary does when she learns it. Catherine Dang did not create a charming or sympathetic protagonist. Mary is depressed, full of self-pity, and full of resentments. We don’t know why she violently attacked the woman that led to her expulsion for most of the book. Perhaps we are supposed to suspect she might have something to do with Olivia’s disappearance, but I never thought so for a moment even when I disliked her actions.
Dang carefully explores the way racism works, contrasting the police investigation of Daniela’s disappearance and Olivia’s. It seems particularly apt this week when Missing White Woman Syndrome has captured the media’s attention again with the tragic death of Gabby Petito. It does not diminish the tragedy of her death to note that there has never been a similar frenzy about a Black or Indigenous woman who disappeared. Dang also has her own character succumb to implicit bias with unjustified fears of some of the Black people she encounters. This is hard to do while avoiding dogmatism but Dang succeeds.
Nice Girls was released on September 14th. I received an ARC from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.