The promise of an original premise isn’t enough to distinguish “An Anonymous Girl” from your common thriller.
Money forces us to consider things we wouldn’t normally do. It worms its way into our brains, saturating every thought with the anxious sense that: You need this. When desperate, conventions are put to the side. I remember clamoring to raise money for a student organization. The situation was classic: a fast-approaching deadline with less than half the funds raised. Suddenly, it seemed so easy to stand outside in biting cold and ask passersby for spare change, or to cast away reservations in soliciting distant family friends to donate. I signed up for psychological studies and began to perceive throwaway flyers scattered around campus in a different light — like decadent, bittersweet chocolate, promising to reward its subject 10 dollars for 30 minutes of their time for something as simple as filling out a questionnaire. Nothing, really. It was almost too good to be true.
Jessica, the protagonist of “An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendrick and Sarah Pekkanen, needs money. Jessica works as a makeup artist for BeautyBuzz, a fictional company that is a stickler to their rules and apparently doesn’t pay their workers enough. Hey, isn’t that the rub? She stomachs the insecure ramblings of sixteen-year-olds and high-strung mothers, using pasted smiles and insincere assurances to reap better tips. Sure, she doesn’t love her job, but it pays the bills. In particular, it pays the medical bills for Becky, Jessica's sister, whose treatment Jessica has been secretly paying for the last 18 months. When one of Jessica’s clients, an entitled college student, complains about an eight a.m. appointment for a psych study — a questionnaire with a $500 payment — Jessica shows up in her place instead.
The study, an innocuous questionnaire on morality, unfolds in an eerie manner. It starts with relatively tame questions like: Could you tell a lie without feeling guilt? That, in and of itself, doesn’t warrant an eyebrow raise. I imagine myself thinking sure, face deadpan. The “thriller” aspect slowly creeps up on you, offering readers only bits and crumbs with alternating perspectives of Jessica and the psychologist behind the study, Dr. Shields, gradually escalating to a prolonged, spine-chilling end. By then, it’s hard to know who to trust. At one point, I even doubled down on the dog.
I admit, the premise itself is a tad gimmicky. $500 dollars for a two-hour questionnaire? I had to suspend my disbelief for over half of the novel and take it as it is: a thriller. I pushed logical questions aside — say, basic ethical principles? — so that my incredulity didn’t cloud up my experience. I wanted to shake Jessica and tell her: “Just go to the police!” In an attempt to emphasize its psychological premise, “An Anonymous Girl” is littered with well-known psychological studies like The Asch Conformity Study and The Invisible Gorilla experiment, references that allow readers to recall what they learned in their high school psychology class, but also cheapen the plot of “An Anonymous Girl” itself. It’s nice that “An Anonymous Girl” references these studies; however, it uses them as a crutch to deflect from its own superficial plot. It doesn’t work to revise established knowledge and, in fact, relies primarily on cheap tropes to entice the reader along.
I was satisfied by the end — after all, it kept me hooked — but I wasn’t gripping the book in the wake of a horrifying twist, questioning human nature and wishing my cat would curl up alongside me. “An Anonymous Girl” will inevitably blur among the series of thrillers published in the last few years, with only its original premise differentiating it from the rest of the other leading female thrillers.