Maria Weston wants to be friends with you

51mCV12k+uL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Disclaimer: Laura Marshall is a friend of mine – we met while taking the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course in 2015/16. However, I read the first chapter of the novel that became Friend Request at the very first session of this course, before I had properly met Laura – and I was instantly gripped and extremely keen to read on. So I’d guess that I would have loved this novel regardless.

Louise Williams believes that she’s left her difficult school days far behind her; in her early forties, divorced, with a small son, she may not be completely happy with her life, but her successful career as an interior designer is keeping her going. However, everything changes when she receives a friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, a girl that she bullied at school. Louise believes that Maria died twenty-five years ago. However, as the messages keep arriving, and Louise starts to realise that she may not know everything about the night that Maria disappeared, Louise begins to wonder if Maria is still out there somewhere, and seeking revenge…

Friend Request switches between 1989, when Louise and Maria were sixteen-year-old schoolgirls, and 2016. While both main sets of chapters are from Louise’s first-person point-of-view, there are also mysterious italicised sections from an unknown narrator. The clever structure of this novel is one of the reasons why it works so well. While alternating between the past and present is a common device for psychological thrillers, Marshall integrates it absolutely seamlessly – it never feels jarring or confused. The novel brilliantly builds to a juxtaposition of the fateful night of sixteen-year-old Louise’s leaving party and forty-three-year-old Louise’s school reunion, and by this midpoint, the book is unputdownable. Also, I’m not usually a fan of the mysterious italicised narrator device – it can feel like a bit of a cheap way to build tension. I was impatient with it throughout most of this novel as well. But, when I found out who it was, everything slotted together – and I actually think this was a really clever twist on a familiar trope.

Another notable strength of Friend Request is its depiction of teenage girls. While I’m a bit tired of novels that focus solely on the trouble caused by teenagers, both male and female, this is a comment on the market rather than a criticism of this particular book. Friend Request actually skirts cleverly away from stereotypes by making all its teenage characters, even the ‘queen bee’ sort, sympathetic and relatable. Its biggest triumph is the characterisation of Maria. She’s a person in her own right, not just a tragic victim or menacing threat – funny, independent-minded and clever without being slotted into the ‘geek’ or ‘swot’ niche favoured by so many writers who focus on school experiences. We really care about what happened to her, as well as what is going to happen to Louise. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that Marshall had drawn on her own teenage diaries to add to the authenticity of these ‘past’ sections; it absolutely shows.

Over the last few months, I’ve felt a bit burnt out by psychological thrillers, but this doesn’t mean I’m not still keen to read takes on the genre that are genuinely original. Friend Request stands out from the crowd. It’s gripping from first page to last, and the ‘past’ sections are particularly well-observed, interesting, and painfully relatable. I definitely recommend this brilliant summer read, and I will obviously be reading Marshall’s next book!

Thanks to the publisher for giving me a free proof copy of Friend Request to review. It’s out TODAY in the UK.

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