When an old friend from high school recently reached out to let me know she’d be in town, I jumped at the opportunity to grab drinks with her. We reminisced about our wayward times, favorite teachers, and where our mutual friends all ended up. I can tell you right now I am so happy I went to high school at a time when cell phones didn’t connect to the Internet, selfies weren’t a thing, and gossip wasn’t so easily spread from behind a computer screen. How times have changed.
Robyn Harding skillfully dives into the psyche of high school girls in her debut novel THE PARTY. It centers on the Sanders family who throw Hannah, their perfect little girl, a sweet 16 party. What starts off as a low-key sleepover with pizza, cake, and movies for a few friends turns into the night that will change their family forever.
A sweet 16 birthday is a milestone, a time-honored tradition, and it can come with a lot of pressure for a girl trying to fit in with a new crowd, seeking approval of her peers. So when booze and boys inevitably work their way into Hannah’s quiet night in, the Sanders family finds their picture-perfect life torn apart by a horrific accident. This domestic drama is a compulsive page-turning read.
As in every mother’s worst nightmare, Hannah wakes Kim Sanders in the middle of the night, covered in blood, and as panic sets in, Kim’s carefully curated life starts to crumble. What follows is the deconstruction of the textbook family and consequences both teens and parents are reluctant to face. The gossip-hungry kids behave badly and turn on one another, sure, but the parents are no better. If you read BIG, LITTLE, LIES or watched the TV show, you’ll devour this book. If you ever attended a sweet 16 that maybe wasn’t all that sweet, or if your kids are coming up on that age, you’ll relate. I’m sure each of us has encountered a “mean girl” at some point in our lives.
Part of the brilliance of this novel is the way it alternates perspectives from Hannah to her parents, Kim and Jeff, to Lisa, the mother of Hannah’s classmate; they all combine to richly draw out this drama. Kim is hiding something from her family and desperately trying to make everyone believe she has everything under control. Hannah is determined not to be uptight like her mother, and begins to rebel against the “flawless daughter” label she’d been cast under. Jeff has his own secrets to hide, and Lisa becomes a defensive mother fighting for her daughter. It speaks to Harding’s skill as a writer that she can deftly capture each of their voices in a true and unique way.
Harding examines the inner workings of a family, and how the Sanderses fit into their society. As she tugs on one loose end of the thread, their whole world unravels around them. At the center of it all is the basic morality of choosing to do right or wrong in each situation. There’s the parent who asks kids to lie for him, the girl who turns her back on her best friends, and the cruel effects that rumors and hallway chatter can have on a high school kid.
Without giving away any spoilers, I will say that Harding doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow, and the ending will stay with you long after the last page is turned.