Three years ago, I decided to take a chance on a couple of Internet friends and flew to Texas to live with them. It’s a very long, complicated story, but the gist is that things didn’t work out, and I was back in Minnesota five days later. I had hoped that maybe I could fix things with them, but my attempts to reach out were met with a clear message: they were done with me and never wanted to speak to me again. It took me a few months to recover from that blow, and last summer my bitter feelings were resurrected when I accidentally found their Instagram accounts. They were doing well for themselves, pursuing their dreams, and still very good friends. It hurt to see them living their lives without me, and while I’ve made peace with the situation now, I still find myself wondering every so often what would have happened if I’d done things differently.
Why am I baring my soul and discussing something deeply personal in a book review? Because I saw pieces of my experience mirrored in Katy Loutzenhiser’s debut novel If You’re Out There, a mystery involving close friendships, strange Instagram posts, and a deadly secret that lies just beneath the surface. At the center of it all is Zan, a high school senior who is desperate to figure out why her best friend, Priya, is acting so strangely but hitting dead end after dead end after Priya moves out of state. The vibrant, prone-to-jokes Priya is now distant and telling Zan over email that she needs space, but Zan knows her friend too well to accept that answer.
While it took me a couple of chapters to really feel invested in Zan’s daily life, I immediately identified with her need for closure. We learn through flashbacks that Zan and Priya have been friends since middle school, and for Priya to suddenly stop speaking to Zan feels very wrong. Granted, Zan could be seen as an unreliable narrator, but the fact that Loutzenhiser includes flashbacks in the first place clues us in that something isn’t quite right with Priya, making her friend’s obsession with finding out the truth justified. When it feels like everyone in her life is telling her to give up, Zan refuses, knowing that her best friend is too important, and that really hit home with me. Knowing that I’ll never have that kind of resolution in my own life made this book a little painful to read at times, but seeing Zan brought out of her comfort zone and trying to move on did give me a bit of hope for her situation.
Zan’s personal life gives Loutzenhiser a chance to sprinkle in some fun side characters. Her boss, Arturo, is passionate about his acting but can be neurotic and haggard when it comes to managing the restaurant they both work at. Zan’s mother, Alice, is constantly analyzing her strange behavior and doing the best she can to keep things from falling apart. Logan, the cute new boy at school, is willing to help Zan in her quest to find Priya, but he has baggage of his own that he isn’t up front about right away. And both Zan’s and Logan’s younger siblings are adorable (and sassy) and definitely deserve their own spinoff short story.
The mystery aspect of the book was a lot more intense than I was initially expecting, but I definitely enjoyed it. I can’t get into too much detail without spoiling parts of the book, but I will say Loutzenhiser leaves bread crumbs here and there that seem arbitrary, other than being a way to make Zan and Priya’s friendship feel a bit more real, but they double as clues that come into play later; when everything started to click into place, I found myself glued to my ereader, anxious to get to the end. There are things that didn’t add up until this point, but once the realization hit, I had to sit back and take a breather for a few minutes. (And text my boyfriend about the drama unfolding.)
On the surface, If You’re Out There is a book about a deteriorating friendship, but its biggest strength is the balance it strikes between that and the mystery woven in. Zan isn’t trying to solve a mystery just for the sake of doing so; her fierce loyalty to her best friend is what drives her actions, and I’m all for seeing strong female friendships in YA literature. It’s a quick read, but it’s one that I enjoyed, and one I’ll definitely be recommending to fellow readers.
If You’re Out There hits shelves March 5, 2019.