Review: My Sweet Girl

How perfect that the lyrics to "Que Sera, Sera," the song Doris Day introduced to the world in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, are a motif in My Sweet Girl, Amanda Jayatissa's debut thriller. Aspects of the novel's plot call to mind several of the Master of Suspense's classics--especially Vertigo--but My Sweet Girl is neither derivative nor a Hitchcock homage: it's a homespun tour de force that will elicit an amusement park ride's worth of gasps.

One of the novel's two alternating story lines plays out in San Francisco and is driven by an amusingly foulmouthed, drink-addled and short-tempered narrator; "Be nice, Paloma. Be kind," is one of her many stabilizing self-directed imperatives. As the novel opens, she drunkenly returns to her apartment and finds her roommate, Arun, who has been blackmailing her, dead at the kitchen table ("Focus, Paloma"), his head on the table in a pool of blood. She flees the apartment. When the police finally come on the scene, Arun's body is gone, as is the telltale blood.

The novel's other story line unspools 18 years earlier in Ratmalana, Sri Lanka, at the Little Miracles Girls' Home. Twelve-year-old narrator Paloma and the other young residents of the orphanage are giddily anticipating a visit from a wealthy American couple, each girl harboring the same wish--in Paloma's words, "That Mr. and Mrs. Evans would like me so much that they would want to make me their daughter." Because the Sri Lankan government has a rule that by age 15, unadopted Little Miracles residents must move on to the dreaded St. Margaret's Home for Girls, Paloma is well aware that she doesn't have much time left to be claimed.

My Sweet Girl is so cleverly put together that even readers who figure out the novel's central twist (and it's a good bet that they won't) will find their state of suspense undiminished, as several questions will remain to be answered--and ultimately are, blindsidingly so. Jayatissa's gift for plotting is matched by her grace with lacing her fleet narrative with rich social themes, among them cultural assimilation and the different values placed on white versus brown bodies. In a canny touch, the novel's plot hinges on the literary classic Wuthering Heights ("Mrs. Evans was going to be my Catherine. She was going to save me," thinks 12-year-old Paloma). My Sweet Girl may well become, likewise, a classic. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Shelf Talker: This debut thriller, alternately set in San Francisco and, 18 years earlier, at a Sri Lankan orphanage, showcases Amanda Jayatissa's masterful sleight-of-hand plotting.

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