BOOK REVIEW — The Dead Girl: A True Story

screen shot from The Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom2

The Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom is one of those books that has been popping up on my ‘must read’ lists for years (it was first published in 1990) and I read it during my annual home visit to Australia last month. It’s a memoir written by a young college student who’s best friend was brutally murdered.

PLEASE NOTE: there are a few spoilers in this book review.

screen shot from The Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom

There is no question that this is the work of an extremely gifted writer, but a lot of readers might come up disappointed. Because even though the book seems to deliberately target the ‘true crime’ genre, essentially it’s a memoir. Eg, you don’t need to include the words ‘A True Story’ on the cover of a memoir — it’s kind of implied.

I mainly bought The Dead Girl: A True Story because it had rave reviews, but I was expecting a true crime book. So I felt a bit cheated. Not because it isn’t well written, but because it isn’t written in the form of the book I thought I was buying (does that make sense). After all, a true crime book deals in facts, but this memoir it is primarily about the author’s own feelings.

The Dead Girl is written stream of consciousness-style, and we’re completely in the head of a young college student (Melanie) who’s childhood best friend (Roberta) has just moved away to attend a different university — then suddenly disappears in a set of awkward circumstances. She is eventually found murdered 5 weeks later.

The story unfolds through a series of letters from Roberta, and the scattered memories of Melanie. Like any young person who’s not long out her teens, the story jumps around and it’s always about how the disappearance, murder, and loss of a best friend is affecting her own life. And like most people that age (I certainly was no exception) there is very little thought for others.

Like Roberta’s parents, siblings, and other friends. Melanie didn’t paint her dead friend into an angelic BFF — we learn that she was dark, complicated, brilliant, and excessively moody. Melanie brings up Roberta’s boyfriend issues, insecurities, an abortion, depression, and problems relating to her parents. Should she?

That certainly is a troubling part of the book, because Roberta’s parents (who are also openly discussed at length) did not approve of her book and expressly forbade her to reproduce the letters from Roberta. It isn’t until the end of the book that we discover the letters that appear in bold at the beginning of each chapter and section break are actually fictitious.

But it’s a memoir and as a story it’s complex, raw, and real. It is told over a number of years and we feel Melanie’s immediate obsession for remaining connected to Roberta, travelling to California to help with the search for her friend. Then as the years pass (memories fade) Roberta becomes less real, less important, and more made up. And that’s truth.

Love the book for it’s raw honesty, or hate the book for it’s whiney self-indulgence — I think it’s interesting to know that the author’s original journalling was a form of catharsis and only submitted as a university thesis. It was actually Melanie Thernstom’s professor who showed the piece to a literary agent who promptly organised an advance of $367,000. Would you have turned that down?

I gave The Dead Girl: A True Story 4 stars on Goodreads, if you’ve read it yourself I’d love to hear what you thought of the book.

PS: you can read my other book reviews here on the blog.

And someone, I’m not kidding, I read this — someone had the nerve to say he shouldn’t be judged harshly because it was a first offence. “A first offence,” I repeat, and stop, unable to express the depths to which the concept of first offence does not apply to murder.

Melanie Thernstrom, The Dead Girl.

screen shot from The Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom3