Five Total Strangers by Natalie D. Richards will suck you into a snowstorm of stress and second guesses. I can’t recommend a more perfect spooky read to launch you into a fall mood and make you feel jumpy right before Halloween.
The novel follows Mira, who, after spending the semester in sunny San Diego at art school with her dad, is anxious to get home for Christmas with her mom in Pennsylvania. Their duo used to be a trio—Mira, her mom, and her Aunt Phoebe did everything together until Aunt Phoebe died of cancer exactly one year ago. However, during her layover, she learns that her second leg has been cancelled, thanks to a record-breaking snowstorm. To make matters worse, when she calls her stepfather to check on her mom, he reveals that they’re getting a divorce—and her mom never told her.
More desperate than ever to get home to her emotional mother, who surely needs her, she accepts the ride offered by her seatmate on the plane, Harper, who’s driving home with a group of her college friends. From the very beginning, Mira has a bad feeling about these friends. Both boys, Brecken and Josh, seem like nice guys, but are looks deceiving? Kayla, meanwhile, sleeps slumped against the window for the majority of the drive, and when she is awake, she says weird, random things that make Mira’s skin crawl. Still, she trusts Harper, and if these are Harper’s friends, she should be safe.
Then, at their first stop, Harper notices that her wallet is missing. Fingers start to point. Apparently, these four aren’t all friends, like Mira originally assumed, but total strangers. Next, Josh’s book goes missing. Then, Mira’s phone. Finally, the map. This is too much to be a coincidence. Meanwhile, the storm continues to get worse and worse. Pileups dot the snowy roads, and drivers can’t see even a few feet in front of them. Mira tries to fight her growing instinct to panic, telling herself that she’s overreacting, but finally, the evidence is too great to ignore. Someone in the car doesn’t want them to reach their location.
Now, this is a pretty typical thriller, but I applaud it for keeping me on the edge of my seat the entire time. Every time I would start to grow complacent, start to think, “Oh, maybe I can trust this guy,” something would shift, and suddenly, I wasn’t so sure anymore. Although I had an idea of who was behind it all (and I turned out to be right), I kept second guessing myself until the very last page. Mira second guesses not only the people around her, but her own judgement. In the end, her judgement turns out to be wrong, leading her to question if she can trust herself at all.
Beyond the suspense, I really appreciated that this story wasn’t just action, but it had an emotional core as well. For most of the novel, Mira’s thoughts are dominated by worry for her mother. This worry is what drives her to fight so hard to get home, sometimes making unwise decisions. I also enjoyed her dynamic with the other four characters. Mira is still in high school, making her younger than everyone else, and it was interesting to read how that plays out on the page. I’m used to always being the youngest in the room, so I related to Mira’s feelings of smallness and ignorance.
My main complaint would probably be the ending. While I enjoyed how the story played out, and I wouldn’t change what happens, I wish it had been drawn out more. The novel ends pretty quickly once the mystery sabotager is found, and I wish we had more time in the aftermath with Mira, her mother, and her best friend.
Overall, this is a quick, fun, and gripping October read, perfect for this season. For all you thriller fans out there, I highly recommend it!