The Plot: Sunday morning, at 7:16 in the morning, Rain is woken up by a phone call from Wendy Geller’s mother. Wendy’s mother sounds like someone who is scared but is trying not to be scared: Wendy didn’t come home last night. Does Rain know where she is? Ms. Geller doesn’t realize that Rain and Wendy haven’t been friends since freshman year, two years ago.
It’s not till later that night that Rain hears the news: Wendy’s body has been found in Central Park. She’s been murdered.
It’s Day One. And even though the two girls were no longer friends, Rain feels she owes Wendy. No matter what it takes, Rain will find out who killed Wendy.
The Good: Rain is an outsider at her school. Oh, she has some of the right credentials: rich enough to go to school, plus her mother’s an opera singer (“if you’re into opera, you probably know her“) so Rain is even a “daughter of” someone. Rain also has a cleft palate, and while she’s had surgery and speech therapy, she goes to school with people who for years mocked what she did (or didn’t) say. Wendy, the new girl in school, doesn’t, even though to do so would help her gain friends with the popular kids. Instead, Wendy tells her “cleft palate. Big deal. Okay, maybe you sound a little funny. Some. Times. But you need to forget about that and speak up, girl!”
Rain doesn’t speak up. She listens. This is what she brings to her investigation of Wendy’s death: an insider’s knowledge of her classmates, an outsider’s observation skills, and the ability to get people to talk and to hear what they do and don’t say.
Why Rain and Wendy stopped being friends is part of what drives Rain to do this one final thing for Wendy: find the person responsible. What happened between the girls? Wendy was the outsider, whose well off grandparents paid her tuition, but the money wasn’t the “right” kind and led to jokes behind her back. Rain was alone, and the two got together and had fun. Rain remembers what she loved about Wendy: “I thought about the particularly insane thing she had promised to do that night. And I wondered two things: Doesn’t she know how ridiculous she is? And what is that like? To have no fear?” “Wendy always seemed to know where life was, and if you were lucky, she’d grab you by the hand and take you along for the ride.” That was the good in Wendy; the bad – well, I could understand why their friendship cooled. It’s important to Wendy that people like her, that people chose her, so “she becomes the kind of person people ‘like’ instead of the person she really is.”
I felt terrible for Wendy: Wendy as a ninth grader, wanting what she can’t have. Wendy in a school that mocks her. The cruelty of immature children and teenagers. And I felt worst when I saw Wendy trying to get back for hurts in ways that just hurt herself. Rain, of course, was in no way to help or save Wendy because Rain had her hands full with her own issues, her own anger and hurts.
Wendy is dead in a park and the headlines are turning it into the story of a party girl who made the wrong choices. Rain knows her friend is more than tabloid headlines. Rain is pushed outside her comfort zone of passively observing and listening as she investigates what happened to her friend. The Girl in the Park is a murder mystery, yes; but it also a coming of age story, as Rain learns to speak up, both for herself and for Wendy.
The Girl in the Park provides several suspects, clues, and false leads. Rain has to look past who she likes (or doesn’t) based on their past poor treatment of herself and others.
Rain’s cleft palate and speech difficulties are perfectly woven througout the story; they infuse Rain’s character and explain her own distance from her classmates. This is not a story about a girl with a cleft palate; it is a murder mystery where the investigator happens to have a cleft palate. When looking at the author’s blog, she mentioned drawing from her own experience (The Psychic Ouch). In her post, Fredericks writes ” I didn’t want to write a “It’s so hard to be me” novel. So I started wondering what would happen if a girl who was terrified to speak to people (I suspect there are a lot of us out there, cleft palates or no) had to speak up? What if she had to start asking questions, demand to be heard?” Frederick suceeds; this is not a problem novel; and she makes Rain’s self-imposed silence both particular (the cleft palate) and universal (for anyone who, for whatever reason, has felt silenced).
Other reviews: Chronicles of a Book Evangelist.
If you’re about my age, or from the New York area, “party girl found dead in the park” may sound familiar. Fredericks notes that she was inspired by the murder of Jennifer Levin. For those interested in what happened to Levin, from New York Magazine: East Side Story: Robert Chambers, Jennifer Levin, and a death that shocked the city.; Jennifer Levin’s Mother Remembers “Preppy Murder” Case.