One of our recommended books is Before We Were Innocent by Ella Berman


A summer in Greece for three best friends ends in the unthinkable when only two return home. . .

Ten years ago, after a sun-soaked summer spent in Greece, best friends Bess and Joni were cleared of having any involvement in their friend Evangeline’s death. But that didn’t stop the media from ripping apart their teenage lives like vultures.

While the girls were never convicted, Joni, ever the opportunist, capitalized on her newfound infamy to become a motivational speaker. Bess, on the other hand, resolved to make her life as small and controlled as possible so she wouldn’t risk losing everything all over again.

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A summer in Greece for three best friends ends in the unthinkable when only two return home. . .

Ten years ago, after a sun-soaked summer spent in Greece, best friends Bess and Joni were cleared of having any involvement in their friend Evangeline’s death. But that didn’t stop the media from ripping apart their teenage lives like vultures.

While the girls were never convicted, Joni, ever the opportunist, capitalized on her newfound infamy to become a motivational speaker. Bess, on the other hand, resolved to make her life as small and controlled as possible so she wouldn’t risk losing everything all over again. And it almost worked. . . .

Except now Joni needs a favor, and when she turns up at her old friend’s doorstep asking for an alibi, Bess has no choice but to say yes. She still owes her. But as the two friends try desperately to shake off their past, they have to face reality.Can you ever be an innocent woman when everyone wants you to be guilty?

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  • Berkley Books
  • Paperback
  • December 2023
  • 400 Pages
  • 9780593099551

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About Ella Berman

Ella Berman grew up in both London and Los Angeles, and worked at Sony Music before writing her first novel, The Comeback. She lives in London with her husband, James, and their dog, Rocky.


“Two BFFs are accused of murder in this novel that feels like true crime.”Cosmopolitan

“Ella Berman reveals a teenage girl’s heart of darkness in her absorbing new novel. . . . Written with the urgency and thrill of an illicit secret, Before We Were Innocent captures the pleasures and perils of American girlhood.”Jillian Medoff, bestselling author of When We Were Bright and Beautiful

“Berman’s an expert at the small moment, the Austen-esque tragicomedy of unspoken human desire that compounds into something too big to name, too awful to ignore.”Sarah Langan, author of Good Neighbors

“It’s a compulsive thriller, and you won’t want to put down Berman’s second book.” —Shondaland

“Slices to the core of a fraught friendship on the brink of disaster.” —PopSugar

Discussion Questions

1.   Bess and Joni are vilified by the international media after Evangeline’s death in 2008. Do you think the same thing would happen today?

2.   After Bess’s and Joni’s reputations are ripped to shreds, they’re expected to know how to navigate their new infamy. How successful are they each at coping with it? And what choices would you have made in their position?

3.   What do Bess, Joni, and Evangeline see in one another when they meet as teenagers? What were you looking for in your own best friends at that age?

4.   Bess still blames herself for what happened to Evangeline in Greece. Do you view her death as a senseless accident or an inevitable outcome of their collective frustration that summer?

5.   Why do you think Bess agrees to help Joni when she comes back to her in 2018? Why does Bess find her old friend so hard to resist?

6.   After Bess returns from Greece, her relationship with her family deteriorates. What could they have done differently to stop this from happening?

7.   Bess still fantasizes about her stolen future with Theo. What do you think he represents for her? And what do you think the future would have held for them if Evangeline hadn’t died that night?

8.   Toward the end of the book, Joni attributes her manipulative behavior to her past trauma. Do you accept this as a justifiable defense for how she acts toward Bess? Should our present transgressions be forgiven because of our past?

9.   At one point, Bess asserts that “trusting someone is a choice.” Do you believe this is true? And why do you think Joni finds it so hard to
tell Bess the truth about Willa from the start?

10. The book examines the thousands of choices we make every day—good and bad, infinitesimal and life-altering. Joni wants Bess to be
fearless in her choices. Do you think Bess achieves this by the end of the book?

11. “Everyone always talks about things being taken out of context, but in our case, it felt like the exact opposite—every single thing we’d ever done or said was now viewed only through the prism of Evangeline’s untimely death.” Did the story make you rethink any of your own judgments of people in the public eye?

12. What do you think of Joni’s ending? Do you have any ideas on what happens to her? By then, has she learned anything from the events of 2008 and 2018?

13. Why do you think Bess is still so tied to this period in her life? Do you think she’ll ever truly move on?

14. What does the title Before We Were Innocent mean to you? Do you think it encapsulates Bess, Joni, and Evangeline’s story?




I know it’s her from the moment I hear the knock at my door. After ten years, with no warning, somehow, I still know.

Over the years, I’ve begun to think of Joni only in photographs-reassuringly flat shots of her golden arm slung over my shoulders, eyes knowing, grin wolfish, face tanned and inscrutable, maybe careless in the wrong light. Now that she is inches away, I remember the full animality of our friendship. The clamminess of her skin as we slept side by side, matching leg hairs dusting our thighs, the keloid scar just above her left temple, the viscous blood that would trickle from her nose often and without any warning, although usually when she was being her worst self, as if her body wanted so badly to remind us that she was human.

Joni’s short hair is wet, slicked back, and her lips are swollen in the flickering porch light. I remember that she used to chew her bottom lip when she was feeling vulnerable, and I never mentioned it because it felt like a waste of this rare insight I’d been given. Now I can see that her mouth looks painful, red raw where she’s torn at it.

Joni doesn’t attempt to hide her shock at my own appearance in return, and I stand rigidly as she takes me in-hair hanging limply to my waist, faded T-shirt thrown over flannel pajama shorts, pale skin that has seen less sun in five years than it used to in one summer. From afar, I’ve kept abreast of Joni’s transformation from scrappy, magnetic teenager to overgroomed media rent-a-personality, but this is the first time she’s seen me outside of my teenage state, probably seared as indelibly into her mind as it is my own (hip popped, pink tongue sticking out of lips coated in MAC’s Rapturous).

“Jesus, Bess,” she says finally. “You’re a little fucking young to retire to the desert, aren’t you?”

As Joni’s openers go, it could have been a lot worse, but I still feel my perspective shift. I wonder if she can already sense the stifling flatness of life next to the Salton Sea-a wasteland or a kingdom, depending on how you ended up here.

“I need your help,” Joni says next.

I think of the ghost between us. The three of us sticky with sweat, sunburned bodies loose from cheap beer as we danced to our favorite song underneath a palm leaf canopy, or lying on our stomachs on a hotel bed, dirty soles of our feet in the air, as Joni and I competed over who could shock Evangeline into laughing first. Then, inevitably-the unnatural angle of Ev’s neck under the skinniest moon I’ve ever seen. Ten summers that have felt like ten seconds and ten lifetimes all at once.

When Joni takes a step toward me, I move away and she pretends not to notice, just like how I pretend not to notice that her hand is shaking as she plays with the button of her white linen shirt. I think about the last time we were together and the cruel things we both said, knowing they could never be undone. I think about everything I lost while Joni elevated our shared existence, upgrading her life like a company car. I think about the end of that summer and feel the shame trickle down the back of my neck. There are ten thousand reasons why I shouldn’t let Joni Le Bon inside my house tonight, but still, I take a step backward.

“Follow me,” I say.



I lead Joni into the kitchen, walking carefully around the saguaro cactus that shoots through the center of my house like a missile, causing the tiles around it to crack and cave. When I look down, I realize I’m wearing the humiliating pair of bunny slippers my ex-boyfriend Ivan gave me as a birthday present, and I wonder if I can slip them off before Joni notices.

“You are aware you have a strikingly phallic cactus,” she says, more at ease now, “in the middle of your house.”

“I had noticed,” I say as I open the fridge. “Do you want some water?”

Joni frowns. “I’d prefer wine.”

I rifle through the cupboard under the sink, coming up with a bottle of California chardonnay that Ivan must have bought before he decided I was unsalvageable. It has to be a shitty bottle for him to have left it behind, considering he unscrewed all the halogen lightbulbs on his way out.

I pour two glasses, watching as Joni takes in the surroundings-the slate gray blinds pulled down; the peeling shiplap walls and mismatched furniture; the stark print of sunflowers hanging on the wall above the TV, an image so bland that my brother once asked if it came with the frame. If I see a flicker of approval on Joni’s face, I think I know why-my home is the diametric opposite of the Calabasas McMansions we both grew up in, with their acute angles and surfaces designed so that you can never quite escape your own reflection, because why would you want to when you’ve spent thousands of dollars on tweakments to not only maintain but elevate your own face?

“You live here alone,” Joni says.

“Does that surprise you?” I ask, leaning against the cabinet, waiting for her to tell me what she wants from me. Nine years ago, I spent my dead grandmother’s inheritance on this cabin beneath the San Jacinto Mountains precisely because of its isolation-so that people from my past wouldn’t just show up one day because they were “in the area.”

“Are you off the grid?” she says instead. “Are you generating energy from compost or something?”


“I’m just trying to understand,” she says.

“Why are you here?”

Joni nods and takes another sip of wine.

“It’s my fiancée,” she says. “Willa.”

“Your fiancée,” I repeat, even though I already know that “Willa” is Willa Bailey, semifamous influencer and activist-information I have gleaned from Joni’s Instagram account, which I follow from an anonymous burner profile: @pizzancacti23. I can already picture Willa’s face in my mind as clearly as I can any celebrity’s-wide easy smile and thick, expressive brows that tend to cave inward when she talks, like the Sad Sam dog I kept stuffed down the side of my bed for the duration of my teenage years-but I would never give Joni the satisfaction of knowing it.

“Trouble in paradise?” I ask.

“I guess you could put it that way,” Joni says carefully, and it throws me. Is Joni careful now? Does she deliberate over each perfect word instead of letting them fly out of her mouth like a swarm of wasps?

I watch as she bites down on her lip, hard.

“A few weeks ago, Willa found out that I slept with someone else,” she says after a long pause. “And, while I promised her it was a one-night thing, it wasn’t exactly as simple as that . . .”

“You’re still cheating on her,” I say.

“I didn’t say that,” Joni snaps back like a snake before she catches herself, smiling a little.

“I may have been keeping a door open that I should have closed,” she says, and I don’t know why I’m surprised at how little she’s changed.

“But, earlier tonight, Willa found a . . . photo that this person, Zoey, sent me, and I knew that it had to stop. So, I drove over to Zoey’s apartment and I ended it. For real this time.”

I stare at her, still unsure exactly what she wants from me. The Joni I knew always owned her choices unequivocally; surely she doesn’t need me to tell her that she’s a good person, that Willa probably doesn’t deserve better, that she’s only human despite all the praise and fervor and adulation claiming otherwise in the years since we were friends.

“The thing is, Willa thinks I came straight here,” Joni says. “To give her some space.”

“And why would she believe that?”

“Because every time I was with Zoey, Willa thought I was with you,” Joni says levelly. “I told her we were planning something to mark the tenth anniversary. A celebration of Evangeline’s life, since we obviously didn’t make it to her funeral.”

I swallow, wishing I hadn’t asked, because what would a celebration of Ev’s life even look like now? The only people we could invite would be other ghosts from our past-people Evangeline would also have been destined to outgrow and forget existed had she made it past her nineteenth birthday; people who had never really known her anyway, not like we had.

“But, Bess. If Willa finds out I lied to her, it won’t be good.”

“It won’t be good,” I repeat. “Because . . . ?”

“Because I have the biggest month of my career coming up,” Joni says. “Because everything I’ve ever done has been building toward this moment, my book release, and for someone who has built a career on radical honesty and authenticity, this secret liaison isn’t exactly a great look for me.”

Everything I’ve ever done. Funny how this book, this pinnacle of Joni’s career, happens to land on the ten-year-anniversary summer of the incident that made her infamous, I think, fighting a swell of resentment. Her MO is self-help, only Joni never calls it that. In her posts, it’s always self-growth and personal development, as if it’s never too late to overhaul your disappointing personality.

“Not because you love Willa, though,” I say. “What, did you just get bored of her?”

Joni glares at me.

“Bess, I don’t want to go into the minutiae of my relationship with you right now, I’m just asking for your help.”

For a split second, I am blindsided that, once again, Joni has built a life worth lying for to protect.

“You haven’t actually told me what you want me to do,” I say, even though by this point, I already know.

“If anyone asks, I left my house around six and got here at nine p.m.,” Joni says slowly, scanning the kitchen and landing on the dirty pan still sitting on my stovetop, a telltale strand of anemic spaghetti hanging over the edge. “You made pasta, and then we sat in the kitchen drinking this bottle of wine and catching up about the past. It’s three hours, Bess. What difference does it make to your life?”

I think of all the ways I could say no to Joni. I could tell her how horrified I am that she would ask me this-that after ten years, I would be the person she canvasses to lie for her, even after everything we’ve been through. I could remind her of how badly she’d betrayed me the last time we saw each other, how much we’d wanted to hurt each other back then and how stunningly we succeeded. I could tell her about my life as it is now-how I’ve worked to tread lightly, to leave little trace of myself, to forget all the things we did and didn’t do, constructing a new identity based on my actions rather than my instincts, and how Joni turning up and asking for this will disrupt everything all over again because I didn’t leave space for anyone else in my life, but least of all her.

“Why did you do it?” I ask quietly, and Joni’s eyes flash with fury.

“You’re not listening to me,” she says, speaking slowly as if I’m being willfully stupid. “I would have thought that you, more than anyone, wouldn’t question me.”

I swallow a rising lump at the back of my throat.

The problem is, Joni has always known who I am. And that’s exactly why she’s back.



I n the morning, Joni is poised and collected, already showered as she deftly works the imposing coffee machine my parents insisted on sending me, eyebrows groomed, smile impenetrable. I stand by the breakfast counter and, when she places a bowl of cereal in front of me, I try to appreciate being waited on, even if it is just dry shredded wheat from someone who has gone our entire adult lives without wanting to see me until now.

“Is everything okay today?” I ask.


“With Willa,” I say, eyeing her curiously.

“Oh.” Joni tucks her dark hair behind her ear. “I’m not sure. I left my phone at home.”

I stare at her for a moment longer. “You can use mine if you want.”

Joni waves her hand at me and searches for something in the fridge.

“I have half-and-half under the sink,” I say. “If that’s what you’re looking for.”

Joni winces and closes the fridge.

“I’m sorry for asking you to help me after . . . everything,” she says, widening her eyes at me. The mannerism is so odd, so decidedly un-Joni-like, that I instinctively narrow my own eyes back at her.

“How have you been, anyway?” I ask. “Apart from this.”

“What a tragically quotidian question,” Joni says as she studies the use-by date on a bottle of Advil before tossing it into the trash. “You realize I haven’t seen you in nearly a decade?”

And whose fault is that? I think.

“Fine,” I say. “How’s your mom?”

“If you find out, do let me know,” Joni says, without missing a beat. “Last I heard, she was in Dubai. She still doesn’t believe in the internet.”

As she’s talking, I take a seat in the low fishing chair I keep set up for the rare occasions my own parents visit from wherever they are in the world. Their visits are generally fraught, and we all avoid referencing life before 2008, unless my brother, Steven, is there, because he has all the tact and confidence of a Southern California real estate agent despite working in software engineering, and he never seems to notice when my parents go pale or when my smile has been pasted on my face for so long that my lips are cracked. Every time they leave, they invariably try to replace every freestanding item in my home, and I invariably have to send it all back.

I open my laptop and sign in to the complaints interface of the dating app I moderate: 5oulm8s. It’s 6:05 a.m., an hour before I’d usually start, but I want to make it clear to Joni that I’m not going to mold my entire day around her just because she’s been back in my life for all of six hours. Now seems as good a time as any to start sifting through the darkest dregs of online behavior-the private interactions on a dating app notorious for its hookup culture.

“Is this your work uniform?” Joni asks. I look down at my gray leggings, already sagging at the knees, and the oversized green 5oulm8s hoodie I received when I first joined the team nearly eight years ago.