then she was gone book cover

Secrets in Love, Secrets in Death

Author: Lisa Jewell

One bright fall day she is walking to the library, the world lying shimmering in front of her. And then . . . then she simply disappears.

Left in the rubble is her mother, pining for the loss of her favorite daughter, the bright child with the good future. And from here comes divorce, estrangement, and an endless loop of unanswerable questions and horrific what-ifs. A future that is stuck in the past and so much resentment. A remaining daughter who won’t speak to her. A broken son with a weird girlfriend. A husband who still loves his now hateful wife, but is forced, from both exclusion and the boundaries set by his own lack of ostentatious grief, to move on. And then, ten years later, finally some closure. Bones and a set death. No chance of ever seeing any sort of return.

woman in roomLaurel Mack, the bitter mother turned divorcee, is now left to look at what her life has amounted to, the effects of shutting out her remaining children, of choosing only to love and want the one who is gone. When second chances come in a café, at the behest of a handsome stranger with no knowledge of her past, something compels her to reach out again, to move on.

Yet the secrets of her missing, now known to be dead daughter, aren’t over. When her new boyfriend takes her to meet his oddly secretive daughter, Laurel is shocked, for in this girl, the same age as her once-upon a time, now forever gone daughter, she sees the echo of a familiar face. And like that, the past and all its dark secrets come rolling back.

Then She Was Gone is a dark thriller told through multiple viewpoints and a conglomeration of characters who are never sympathetic, but are always interesting. Jewell prefers a twisting timeline, a superimposition of present and past against the backdrop of Laurel reaching out, moving on, and making her own realizations about exactly what kind of mother she has been to her neglected, living children.

It’s not a story of hope or redemption, and that becomes apparent early, set as it all is against the too-good-to-be true relationship Laurel finds herself in. And as Laurel never truly introspects, despite the hints here and there that she should realize her own failings, her own rage, her own horrible preference for her one child, the narrative never looks too deeply. It remains all surface, but that surface is one of depravity and desperation that has many reviewers giving a warning to the more tender hearted, squeamish readers.

sad womanThe story alternates between Laurel in her present as she pieces together the aspects of her boyfriend and his peculiar daughter that tie into her own daughter’s disappearance and murder, the killer, Ellie (Laurel’s missing daughter), and at the very end, bits and pieces from the boyfriend. This confusing jumble ties together to tell a complete past history, even if it doesn’t fit nicely into the sudden denouement. And really, it’s the ending itself, and not the gruesome journey there, that lacks power.

As we’re reading, the haunted choir of voices, each with varying levels of (mostly minimal) sympathy, with the exception of Ellie who is the narrative’s only true innocent, tell a compelling story that is hard to put down. It’s certainly dark, concept wise (albeit we don’t ‘see,’ much less focus on, many of the more horrific moments), yet in this shocking nature – the where, why, and how of the killer’s MO, that a lot of the novel’s creativity lies. It’s because of where this book goes that we keep reading, so invested. And frankly, since the novel skims more than it delves, all these concepts and horrific situations are suitably removed from reality and real people to the degree that while never palatable, we can mostly stomach them. After all, it never tries to feel real and the cut scenes pivot in such a way that we understand what is happening, and the emotional and physical torture of it, without ever really forming a complete image or being forced to imagine such a scenario from the point of view of the victim.

It’s the conclusion, however, where everything gets tied up in a neat little bow and ultimately everyone is ok, ready to move on despite what they’ve unearthed, that the dark magic dissipates and we are left wondering where this little happy ever after came from after so much despair and such a set-up for the ultimate, gut-wrenching confrontation/revelation. The boyfriend’s actions, indeed really his entire side story, only vaguely consequential to the actual reveal, are too knee-jerk, too inexpressive and fake, to lend credence to this transition from dark to everyone being suddenly fine, tied together in this mock sham of a family coming out the other end of a tragedy. While the novel never excelled at depth, this cop-out reduces everything that came before and leaves readers, formerly spell-bound, feeling cheated.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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