by Teresa Toten
Kate and Olivia. Two eighteen-year-old seniors at a private school known as Waverly in New York City. It’s hard to tell which girl is “that girl” mentioned in the title Beware That Girl. Kate, the brilliant, manipulative liar who plans out every step she takes to ensure she gets the “big life she wants” or Olivia, rich and beautiful but emotionally fragile “just messed up enough” (pg. 4) for Kate to befriend. The two secretive girls are “Two unlikely peas in a pod” (pg. 47) in more ways than one.
Kate O’Brian, a high-achieving Waverly scholar, is determined to get to Yale regardless of her current status as a basement boarder and employee at Chen’s Chinese Market and Apothecary. Also working mornings at the school office, Kate searches for her ticket out of her miserable situation and targets Olivia Sumner whose record indicates missed school due to psychological issues. The two girls become acquainted and, when charmed by the new director of fundraising, the charismatic Mark Redkin, to start a Student Advancement Committee, Kate gets Olivia, as well as classmates Serena, Morgan and Claire on board. Soon Olivia has asked Kate to move in to the penthouse she shares with her globe-trotting lawyer father and their housekeeper Anka.
“Becoming friends was a kind of courtship. A ritual of presenting your best self to the other. Each knew not to push too much, too fast. In their conversations, the girls reached for all their similarities willfully ignoring the differences.” (pg. 38)It’s the differences and secrets that still separate the girls, neither being completely honest about their pasts and fears and desires. They each have an agenda for their friendship, which becomes all the more complicated when Olivia becomes involved in an intimate relationship with Mark Redkin. Recognizing him as a “player of biblical proportions” (pg. 120), Kate sees Redkin as more than a threat to their friendship, realizing that “Redkin was going for power, information and amusement. What a trifecta.” (pg. 155)
Beware That Girl is a suspense-laden, surprise-ending story that provides a glimpse of a friendship based on the instability of secrets and schemes. And even though there are moments of affability and benevolence–usually involving the irascible Mrs. Chen, the girls’ shared mutt Bruce, and the thoughtful Johnny who is crushing on Kate–Teresa Toten’s intimate portrayal of a friendship initiated in manipulation will disquiet the reader. From the onset of the book, a scene in which one girl sits at the hospital bed of another while the police wait to question them, Beware That Girl is dominated by uncertainty and foreboding. Teresa Toten may tease the reader with storylines that intimate which character should be heeded but you’ll never know for certain. That is, until her crushing ending that reveals the strength of Teresa Toten’s plotting, story-telling and characterizations. Don’t be alarmed if you have to reread the final four-page chapter–I did–just to assure yourself that this masterful writer has truly reconciled all those secrets and agendas in a bombshell of an ending. She does and it is.