Review: The Girl I Use to Be by April Henry



Henry Holt & Co. | 2016

I’ve yet to read a YA mystery-thriller that really works for me. I’m looking for logic. And if there can’t be logic, I’m looking for it to not take itself so seriously.

I picked up this book because April Henry is one of my youngest stepkid’s favourite authors. I have been asked, for what seems like years, to read her books. Which is super sweet that the kid wants to share that with me, but at the same time, I’m really bad at pretending to care about something.

But I’m going to have to act like I liked this as not to disappoint and emotionally scar this young person in my full-time care. I don’t want to be dismissive.


But, here, which is technically my private space (that is also accessible to anyone with an internet connection), I did not like this.

Not because it’s bad. But because I’m the wrong audience for it. My brain is way too rational. I require a book to make honest-to-life-sense, unless it’s purposefully setting itself up to be campy.

The Girl I Used to Be takes itself too seriously.

I hate to say this, but I think my age stops me from being able to buy whatever shit an author wants to throw at me. Don’t worry about this illogical inconsistency, just enjoy. I CAN’T.

I’m reading about a 17-year-old who is basically living the life an adult, and acting like she not a child, and all I can think is OH YES YOU FUCKING ARE. You are a child. You have your own current life-stage issues, that’s not to be uncaring or dismissive of them. Those can be very real and make very important, emotionally connecting novels for people.

Or even very thrilling, horror or mystery novels.

What I don’t understand is why we can’t just be honest about how life looks at the same time. Why are we taking young adults who are still in high school, or barely out of, and building stories around them where they are basically living the life of a 35-year-old with a mortgage and a car loan, and so many failed relationships they’ve given up on their love life?

Half the time I read YA the characters might as well be divorcees, smoking Marlboros at the end of a bar, bitching about the good ole’ days.

Image result for kid dressed as old lady

This isn’t to say there aren’t teenagers out there living alone, starting to make their own decisions and working to pay for their own shit. My oldest stepkid just moved out to live with his girlfriend. He’s 18. He’s technically an adult, but only barely. And I think adults can look back at that age in their life and say “I wish I hadn’t been in such a rush to grow up.” Even being in a rush, it doesn’t mean you just magically get the things you’re fantasizing about.

It’s been six weeks since my stepson left my house. Do you know what his biggest complaint is? He has to work so much and he’s not getting paid enough.

Welcome to the real world, bitch.

This is what happens. Teenagers think they want to be adults, but they start having to do adult shit and it really, really sucks. It’s not the romanticized version you’ve seen in movies or read about in YA novels. Do you know what doesn’t happen very much? Teenagers acting like adults and just having it all together immediately. Enough money, enough free time with friends, just all the resources in the world to be decorating your apartment like your Bobby from Queer Eye.

My stepkid moved out with nothing but his bedroom furniture. Because teenagers don’t have other furniture. So he’s filling his apartment with things from Goodwill and off the fucking curb. Not a joke. His girlfriend was all “oh, I can’t wait to decorate.” Well, you’re going to have to because all you can afford right now is that old grandma’s rocking chair that you got off the corner of Country Hills Drive.

rob lowe teens GIF by The Grinder

I can see how this aspect is meant more for the young adults reading YA – to make the setting more of a fantasy, or a want. To play up the “fun” parts of being an adult. But I do really wish more YA novels were honest about what life looks like when you’re young and broke and built a storyline within those confines.

We can set it in a place where some young girl’s parents were murdered and she’s got to find the killer. That’s fine! Bring me that drama. But if she could be doing it from a room she’s renting, and she has no furniture and she has to take the city bus everywhere and she can’t stop for Starbucks every fucking day because her cell phone bill is due, that would be fantastic.

Maybe I’d like these books a little bit more.

All that aside, I didn’t necessarily love the plot of this novel. It wasn’t terrible but it felt a little bit easy and uninspired. I feel like all the YA mysteries I’ve read over the last couple of years featured a teenager who is hiding their real identity because of something that happened to/was done by their parents, but they show up in a small town and just start questioning everyone about this dark secret like that’s not completely obvious.

There was some suspense at the beginning that I did get hooked by, and there was some at the end, but I found the majority to be very much “maybe this boy likes me” focused and I could really do without that almost 100% of the time.

Another YA trap seems to be inner dialogue. Just constant thinking and questioning and laying out scenarios while a character showers or sleeps or whatever else. And I am of the mind that full inner dialogue scenes have zero place in novels almost always. I also feel this way about dream sequences. They’re lazy. Show, don’t tell.

Was it a fast read? Completely. But that’s all it’s really got going for it. It’s not really giving me high marks in any other category.

There’s got to be somewhere else we could be going with YA mystery. I will find a good one eventually. I know it.


Fourteen years ago, a three-year-old girl was the only survivor at a horrific murder scene. Now she’s determined to search for the truth—and the killer is even more determined to stop her.

When Olivia’s mother was murdered and her father disappeared, everyone suspected her father had done it. Fast-forward fourteen years. New evidence now proves Olivia’s father was actually murdered on the same fateful day her mother died. That means there’s a killer still at large. Can Olivia uncover the truth before the killer tracks her down?  

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