This was a nice summer novel; light on plot, most of which we've seen elsewhere but Hoffman breathes new life into tired tropes with great characters.
Gus and Carlyn (I listened to the audio edition and don't know the spellings of the names) are newcomers to the Haddon school, both from much less priveledged backgrounds than most of their classmates. They hit it off right away and become close friends, but while Carlyn excels in the classroom and on the swim team, as well as winning the hand of the most popular boy in school, Gus flounders. His new housemates hate him, his teachers are fed up with him and Carlyn is his only friend. Things go from bad to worse for Gus until he's found dead, floating in the river the morning after Halloween.
The rest of the book is comprised of three characters: Carlyn, Betsy, the photography teacher, and Abe, a local police officer, coming to terms with Gus' death and its greater meaning and trying to solve the mystery of who killed him, as well as figure out what they are doing in Haddon and why. Hoffman's characters spend a lot of time examining their pasts in order to retroactively justify their less than stellar presents; many authors fail here, creating half-empty shells of characters whose saccharine musings amount to little more than emotional masturbation. Hoffman's characters learn harsh truths from their pasts and use those lessons to move on.
GIANT SPOILER ALERT
Justice is never served, in my opinion, and even though Alice Hoffman has written a nice story with decent characters, a young boy was bullied brutally and then murdered, and NO ONE pays for it. And everyone, in the end, seems okay with that. I felt like maybe Hoffman wasn't aware of the moral weight of the actions that her characters were taking and the actions that they didn't take, and she certainly doesn't deal with the consequences of a society in which the privileged are allowed to brutalize the vulnerable and get away with it.
I would say that I will probably turn to Alice Hoffman in the future when I'm looking to spend some time with well-crafted characters.