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Before We Were Innocent by Ella Berman

This is a startling book. For those of us in an older generation, it will be uncomfortable. It is skillfully written, though certainly not a Pulitzer Prize winner, portraying an event and its aftermath in the lives of three 18-year-olds. The girls have just graduated from high school and are spending the summer in Greece, at the vacation home of one of their families. The narrator, Bess, is the least affluent and the least confident of the trio, cursed in a sense with an overactive conscience. Joni, in contrast, is more than confident, a leader and an adventurer–but also hard-boiled and ruthless. The third friend is Evangeline, whose docile exterior hides a rigid need for control.

Joni and Bess become bored with the quiet life in rural seaside Greece, and persuade Evangeline to step out for the night, to a nearby town with a frenetic night life. There is a great deal of drinking and carousing and sexual activity there; danger lurks, and the girls are reckless.

As a result, the next day brings discord to the group, and a dreadful incident occurs from which none of them can ever recover. Bess is almost destroyed by guilt, but Joni uses the tragedy to her advantage, becoming a famous television personality and advising viewers about how to build a better life. The story opens ten years later, when Joni demands help from Bess in another situation which at first seems somewhat similar.

Reading this book is like peeling an onion, and it is a cliff hanger; layer after layer is revealed. Although some of the details are distasteful, it’s hard to put the book down. The reader has to know what really happened– who is guilty and to what degree. Joni in particular is clearly hiding things and is dragging Bess into the chasm. The police are involved, as they were in Greece ten years earlier, and the crowds of reporters are savage–also echoing their behavior after the original event in Greece. As a result of Joni’s new issue, the two young women have again lost their privacy and are again threatened on all sides.

There is no tidy ending to this story, no cheerful tying up of loose ends. In fact, the final chapter is fairly murky. But we learn that Bess is now the mother of two daughters, so we assume she has come out of the two ordeals relatively intact. Joni has disappeared, leaving only a hint that she may be behaving this time with benevolent motives. Before We Were Innocent is a book that leaves the reader feeling a bit drained and not altogether satisfied; it is a tribute to the skill of the author that she has been able to draw us into the world of the three characters and provoke both distaste and sympathy for the carelessness that has had such awful repercussions in their lives.

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