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Review: Janelle Brown’s addictive thriller about twin sisters has a surprising twist

A woman in a dress poses on a couch for a headshot
Author Janelle Brown digs into family dynamics in “I’ll Be You.”
(Michael Smiy)
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On the Shelf

I'll Be You

By Janelle Brown
Random House: 328 pages, $28

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A Los Angeles-based writer of both literary fiction and thrillers, Janelle Brown stands out for her surprise-filled plots, insights into contemporary life and willingness to plumb the depths of family dysfunction.

Brown consistently keeps readers guessing about her characters— whether it’s a Silicon Valley woman reeling after her husband runs off with her best friend in “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything,” her bestselling debut, or a husband reassessing his marriage in the aftermath of his wife’s disappearance in “Watch Me Disappear.”

Brown’s latest thriller, “I’ll Be You,” centers on the relationship of 32-year old twin sisters, Sam and Elli Logan, former child actresses. Initially told from the point of view of Sam, readers learn of the pair’s closeness and how they exchanged identities starting at 13. “Then her eyes slid into mine,” Sam remembers, “and I felt her take me — the strong one, the sharp one, the wild one — into herself with a hot, quick gasp, as if suddenly coming alert.”

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Sam may have once been the stronger of the pair, but now she’s struggling to keep her life together in the wake of a long history of substance use. At “378 days into my latest bout of sobriety,” Sam gets a call from her father in Santa Barbara: Elli has gone AWOL.

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“My sister and I hadn’t spoken in 379 days,” Sam says, “so this came as news to me.” Another surprise: Elli is divorcing her husband. Moreover, she has adopted a toddler, Charlotte, whom she deposited with her parents without any notice on her way to a spa somewhere in Ojai. The busy toddler’s care requires more energy than the elderly couple can muster, Mr. Logan tells his daughter. So Sam goes to help out.

The chronology alone hints that something has destroyed the twins’ closeness. Brown spools out the causes in suspenseful bits and pieces, which showcase her insights into family dynamics, including the twin sisters’ complicated relationship, their mother’s “New Age suburbanism: crystal energy and casseroles” and their father’s convenient distancing from the whole mess.

Book cover "I'll be You" by Janelle Brown has pink and orange background and silhouette of a palm tree
(Random House)

Sam finds Elli’s abrupt absence, and the fact that she hasn’t answered her phone, odd, but she nonetheless rises to the occasion to care for Elli’s daughter and reflect on her own childhood. Flashbacks reveal how these once-inseparable twins were discovered by a Hollywood agent on Santa Barbara beach and groomed for a role they shared in a nighttime television drama.

Hollywood irrevocably changed Sam and Elli’s lives and sent Sam careening toward drugs and alcohol, which she’s still trying to understand: “We are ping-pong balls, paddled about by fate and coincidence, doing our best to wrestle back some agency from the forces that move our lives.” Scenes depicting Sam’s incessant craving for attention on the set of her television shows and what led to her drug use are heartbreaking and reveal why she and Elli haven’t spoken in more than a year.

But nothing explains why “good twin” Elli, with a beautiful daughter, pretty Santa Barbara home and florist business, would suddenly drop everything. As Sam digs deeper into Elli’s life, piecing together hints from their mother and one of Elli’s neighbors, she learns that her sister had joined a “culty” women’s group called GenFem. Visiting Elli’s home, Sam finds evidence that Elli left in a hurry. Upstairs, she discovers a gun and a binder revealing that Elli spent more than $100,000 on GenFem workshops and seminars, including a hefty sum for an “Upper-Level Ojai Retreat.”

Worried that her sister is jettisoning her life in Santa Barbara, Sam takes matters into her own hands and, with Charlotte in tow, drives to Ojai to locate the GenFem retreat and talk to her sister in person.

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As Sam’s investigation casts a wider net, “I’ll Be You” becomes less a story about estrangement, guilt and regret and more of an addictive thriller that will keep readers burning through pages to find out what happened. When the narration shifts to Elli’s point of view at a critical juncture in the novel, a twist genuinely surprises, as do Brown’s insights into the very different psychological makeup, perspective and needs of the missing twin. Particularly poignant are Elli’s take on childhood events and how GenFem has exploited her insecurities and weaknesses.

“You weave your way through a world that beats a constant drum of self-improvement,” Elli says, “and you believe that joining one of these groups is just another path toward a better you.”

“I’ll Be You” is a sneakily hypnotic thriller that turns on how Elli’s naïve beliefs have been twisted and whether it’s possible for an estranged family to reclaim their lives and futures.

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Janelle Brown will appear on the panel “Crime Fiction: Looking Back and Starting Over” at 3 p.m. April 23 at the Festival of Books.

Paula L. Woods is a book critic, editor and author of the Charlotte Justice series of crime novels.

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