When Ruby St. James left her hometown in Vermont at eighteen, she didn’t look back. In fact, she practically ran away – never for a second intending to return. Leaving behind her first love, a tight-knit group of friends and an alcoholic mother, she bundled her life into a suitcase and ran to New York in search of a fresh start and a way to mend her broken heart. Ten years later and Ruby gets the terrible news that one of her estranged friends, Danny, has committed suicide and she’s forced to return home.

Drawn back by guilt and childhood obligation, Ruby attends Danny’s funeral and comes face to face with the friends she left behind all those years ago. They’re all invited to Danny’s house afterwards, where his mother reads aloud a letter written by her son before he died, which explains the tragic – possibly preventable – reason he wanted to end his life. Danny also blames his friends for neglecting him when he needed their help, and for keeping secrets from each other, despite their youthful pact to never keep secrets. But that’s not the worst of it.

As a final blow, Danny has also left his friends their own individual envelopes, each one containing a letter with evidence of their betrayal of the pact. His advice is to share their secrets with each other voluntarily, or they’ll be brought out into the open by other means. Though the friends aren’t sure how Danny can reveal their secrets from beyond the grave, he has them nervous. Ruby knows she hid a massive secret from her friends but what she doesn’t know is the secrets they’ve been keeping too.

“I hold them in my hands, little grenades of paper. If I tear them up now, will it stop them from detonating? Judging by the ferocity of Danny’s letter, I’m guessing not. I hand out the envelopes, and as I do so each person looks at me, searching for answers to the questions on all of our minds.”

The story flitters from the present, as Ruby reconnects with the people from her past, including first love Murphy and her now sober mother, and the past – revealing how this once close set of friends grew up and apart. Though Friends and Liars isn’t necessarily a coming-of-age tale, it often feels like a mature version of one. It explores children becoming teenagers, and teenagers becoming adults. All through the book, there’s a feeling that the characters’ lives would be simpler if they were just honest with each other, but Coble explores our human way of keeping secrets from the people we love – whether to protect them or ourselves.

For a debut novel, Friends and Liars reads like it was penned by an author seasoned in writing mystery. It has romantic drama, strained friendships, fractured family relationships, secrets and lies – all vital ingredients to keep me hanging on every chapter, sentence and word. The characters are also beautifully flawed, with multiple layers that emerge as the story progresses. I love tales about small-town American life and people tied to their hometowns – as all the characters in this book are, whether they accept it as Murphy does, or whether they fight against it, like Ruby.

The bittersweet romantic thread between Ruby and Murphy is perhaps the only part of the story that feels a little too familiar – a well-worn road of destructive behaviour that has them fighting and falling back into each other’s arms over and over again. However, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a stellar read and one that was practically glued to my hand for the two days it took to finish it. Friends and Liars is a brilliantly written and completely absorbing debut novel that has me incredibly excited for what Coble will write next.

★★★★

Friends and Liars was published by Corvus on 1 June 2017

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