Nowhere Like Home: A Novel

Image of Nowhere Like Home: A Novel
Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
Reviewed by: 

Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars young adult novels were on the New York Times bestseller list for 62 weeks, and those books and the Lying Game volumes became television series, so she obviously knows what she’s doing when it comes to engaging audiences. She’s credited with launching the young adult mystery-thriller category.

Shepard’s new novel, Nowhere Like Home, is presumably written for adults, but it reads, well, like a YA mystery-thriller that lost the teenagers somewhere along the way. It’s soapy, over the top, and features cliffhanger chapter endings with characters menaced by a knife or walled up in caves. Or maybe just agonizing over some overheard remark.

Shepard is known for writing about friendships, but not good ones. Just about all the characters in Nowhere are Pretty Little (okay, maybe not so little) Liars. For people who spend almost all their time focused on friendship, they sure are bad friends. If their mouths are moving, they’re lying about their past, their jobs, their emotions, their intent. “Friends” in this book murder each other, hack each other’s phones, get each other fired, and lure each other into traps. They’d be better off getting dogs.

Everybody has “a secret,” or maybe two. Self-esteem is quite low, as is feminist solidarity. They’re women-identified, but not woman-friendly. The characters aren’t gay, but virtually none of them has any interest in men, who hardly appear in the narrative.

The book is set in the present, as well as two years earlier, and the story unfolds in alternating chapters. In the present, Lenna—a socially awkward, marginally employed young woman with obsessive-compulsive issues—is made additionally dysfunctional by of the death of her mother, to whom she was close. She befriends the marginally more successful and outgoing flame-haired Rhiannon, who arranges a copy-editing job for Lenna at her gossip magazine. But what if Rhiannon is actually sabotaging Lenna’s career? Questions like that, complete with italics, occur so frequently in this book that it becomes a maddening author’s tic.

Hanging around the gossip magazine is a third woman, Gillian, also socially awkward, who maintains a blog about being socially awkward. But after the Gillian-hating Rhiannon mysteriously disappears (vanishing acts are also big with this author) Lenna and Gillian form a tenuous alliance that soon goes spectacularly, violently bad. Pulled into the whole thing is Sarah, Gillian’s trusting landlord and one of the most unconvincing doctors in the history of literature.

Both Sarah and Lenna, now with a baby in tow, are recruited by the resurfaced Rhiannon for Halcyon, an off-grid women only fertility commune. Something sinister is afoot in the desert. Is the big fence topped with barbed wire to keep animals out, or to keep the women in? And why is the gate code a closely guarded secret? Although the commune ostensibly includes a working farm operation, the characters seem to have little to do but lurk in the corridors, looking menacing. What if Marjorie, the commune’s founder, is blocking their phones?

Shepard writes very unconvincingly about people’s actual lives, and especially their work. The doctor sees only one patient in the book, and almost never thinks about medicine. Rhiannon never actually writes anything we see. Lenna’s “career” is copy editing a few articles, and penning a single freelance story—via one of her friends, who is not actually an editor anywhere. Letterhead gets faked, impersonating emails sent.

For an author whose work gets made into television series, Shepard’s writing is pretty slow-paced, with lots of repetitive internal monologues. Everything leads up to that one shocking act of violence, and then endlessly rehashing same. The relatively sparse dialogue is fairly stilted. Good luck turning this one into a movie.

With virtually everyone in the commune suspect, the book builds to the big climax, during which the woman holding the sticks of dynamite is finally revealed. A sandstorm adds to the melodrama. Guess what? The villain, who lacks only a moustache to twirl, is not who you think it will be.