From the novel’s very first page, Karen M. McManus establishes that the world of Bayview High is ruled by a volatile network of gossip, secrets, and lies. The novel’s title is deceiving—it’s not just one of the protagonists, but all four, who are lying to each other and often to themselves. Over the course of the novel, McManus puts her characters on separate but connected paths: away from lives lived in fear of their secrets being exposed, and towards lives lived in the light of the truth. Through her exploration of the economy of gossip and subterfuge that rules Bayview—and how her four protagonists manage to subvert and overcome it—McManus ultimately argues that communities ruled by truth, openness, and transparency are infinitely stronger than those united by cruelty, fear, and deceit.
Simon Kelleher, a Bayview High student who runs a popular gossip blog called About That, describes the blog—a source of fascination but also of fear and dread for the student body—as a “public service.” Simon, who knows that the people at his school will always “lie and cheat,” has seized upon the emotionally and socially fraught world of high school. Through his blog, he has helped to foster an environment—and an economy—in which gossip is both manna and poison; everyone reads the app voraciously and believes it unequivocally, but everyone is terrified of winding up in one of its posts. Simon is both hated and revered at Bayview; Cooper Clay admits in the novel’s early pages that Simon has the power to turn the tides of the social stratosphere at Bayview based on what he writes on his app, and has destroyed friendships and relationships throughout the student body because of gossip he’s spread and secrets he’s revealed. Cooper himself is “freaked” at the thought of what Simon could do to him using the app. Simon—a powerful, fearsome figure in the novel’s first few pages—is quickly dispatched when he dies early on due to a supposed allergic reaction. The suspicious circumstances surrounding Simon’s death quickly lead to a murder investigation in which Cooper, Addy, Bronwyn, and Nate—the four students who were in detention with him at the time of his death—are prime suspects. The students’ guilt is presupposed even more when it is revealed that Simon had queued up an About That post featuring explosive secrets about each of them. Bayview High is a place where gossip is powerful enough, even in the eyes of outside investigators, to derail someone’s life—to the point that they’d consider murder a welcome alternative to having their secrets revealed and leveled against them. In establishing the extremely high stakes of life at Bayview, McManus elevates the atmosphere of uncertainty within the novel and suggests that cruel gossip and the revelation of peoples’ darkest secrets is actually so traumatic that it drives people to commit heinous acts. As the novel progresses, the ways in which this suggestion is true will come to light—though none of her characters are murderers, they have all organized their lives around ferociously guarding their secrets and attempting to inure themselves against the gossip that hounds their classmates.
Once everyone’s worst fear has been realized—their secrets have been dragged out into the open—the secrets themselves are revealed to be far less destructive than the atmosphere of oppression and intimidation that made the secrets seem like such valuable currency in the first place. Bronwyn owns up to and apologizes for her cheating scandal, and as a result receives a missive on Twitter from her dream school, Yale, stating that they’re looking forward to receiving her application; Cooper, who is outed, struggles for a while with his father’s confusion and disappointment at the revelation of his son’s homosexuality but eventually receives more offers than ever from top college baseball teams around the country (and is able to openly date his partner, Kris); Addy fears she has been turned into a pariah because of the revelation that she cheated on her long-term boyfriend, Jake, but the resulting breakup actually removes her from a dangerous and controlling situation; Nate, who has in fact been violating his parole by selling drugs, is at last given the motivation to stop leading such a shady life when the whole fracas throws him and Bronwyn together, and he longs to improve himself in order to be with her. Though Simon posthumously retains his hold on Bayview through About This, a blog secretly being run by Jake in order to stoke the flames of the investigation, the divisions that seeped into the student body under Simon’s “reign” slowly begin to dissolve as the Bayview Four look past their own failures (and each other’s) and work together to pursue the larger truth—the truth of what happened to Simon, and of how he came to rule their school in the first place.
In the end, McManus’s characters have had all of their deepest and darkest secrets dragged out into the light—even if many of the revelations happened against their will. Though the exposition of their most painful secrets has been a taxing ordeal, McManus shows that her characters are stronger in the end now that their secrets are out in the open, and no one can use those secrets to manipulate them or to try and strike fear or shame into their hearts. The friendships and connections the four of them have formed have forever changed not just their own lives, but the lives of their larger school community—which has witnessed firsthand how destructive secrets, gossip, and lies truly are.
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