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By Alex Carrigan
There are many roles women are expected to fulfill in their lives, whether it's being a good wife, a loving mother, a hard worker, etc. But what's really upsetting is how much of it comes from relinquishing control over their role to others. Whether it's having to listen to older women for advice on marital roles, or putting faith in doctors in regards to bodily autonomy, it's shocking how much women must fit into a box, but also how much responsibility they are left to bear if they fail to live up to expectations.
In her latest novel, The First to Lie, award-winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan follows several women as they are all tied to a scandal in the world of pharmaceuticals. First is Ellie, a reporter for a fledgling news station who is investigating the megacorp Pharminex over reports that a fertility drug of theirs has side effects the company doesn't want the public to know about. Then there's Nora, a saleswoman for the company who spends her days going to various doctors trying to get them to give said drug to their patients. The story goes back over a decade to follow two women who are involved with the family who runs Pharminex, the Vanderwalds. There's Lacey, an upstart who marries the heir to the company and is desperate to fit into high society. Lastly, there's Brooke, the teenage daughter of the Vanderwalds whose teenage angst may belie some serious ethical and medical violations. The story drifts around each of these women, showing how their paths cross and how each of them has more to the current story than realized, leaving the reader to figure out who's honest in their tale and who isn't.
Each of these women has every reason to lie in their daily lives. Some, like Nora and Ellie, have to lie or obfuscate as part of their careers. Lacey and Brooke have to lie in order to fit into their place in high society. However, what's fascinating about Ryan's book is how each of these women use lies to wrestle control and power over their situation. They were each forced to maintain a form of themselves in order to survive in this world, and we see how it benefits or harms them. This is aided by the book's use of narrative, where each chapter is from the perspective of one of the women. This means the reader only sees what they see, but also sees how calculated they have to be in order to function. We see Nora and Lacey constantly build themselves up in their mind, reminding themselves how they have to be, showing just how exhausting it is for these women to construct their identities. Meanwhile, Ellie and Brooke are able to exist in their forms, but spend less time artificially constructing themselves, focusing more on how those around them can't truly understand how dangerous they are behind their somewhat plain appearances.
While it's difficult to discuss a lot of this book without getting into spoilers, it does tie into Ryan's strengths as a noted mystery writer. The mystery and the subterfuge involved to make a medical drama like this as exciting and engaging as it is required some very tight plotting and characters. Ryan could have easily stuffed it full of too many twists and details, and while there can be brief moments where it requires a moment to remember everything, there's still enough in there to make in an engaging read.
Part of it also comes down to Ryan's usage of when to reveal some of these details. There's a major reveal about one of the four women about 100 pages in which throws everything seen before about her into question and affects how the story goes forward in a way that feels like it emphasizes just how large the mystery is. It makes sense for something as large as a pharmaceutical scandal to require high stakes, especially when they threaten bodily autonomy, but Ryan's escalation feels like it'd be an actual part of the story, not just killing off characters for first act twists.
The First to Lie is a fun thriller that calls into question how much women are allowed to control their bodies, but also how much they have to lie in order to show some power. The book was hard to put down and felt organic in its delivery of its dramatic twists and turns. While there were some confusing moments and maybe some moments where the supporting characters could have stood out a little better, it's still quite an exciting read and one that will surely leave the reader guessing where it's going next, but also left wondering just what is inside the bottle of pills in their bathroom cabinet.
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