The Short Version: Lana Granger, a young college student, has told so many lies to escape her dark past that she barely remembers who she actually is anymore. But with graduation approaching, she takes her first real job in an attempt to grow – babysitting a young boy named Luke, who turns out to be quite the young psychopath. When Lana’s best friend disappears and the police are called in, Lana is drawn into a battle of wits with lives on the line – and her opponent seems to know all of her secrets.
The Short Version: A little while back, I bemoaned the Gone Girl-ification of modern mysteries – but the format, when handled well, works. And Lisa Unger definitely handles it well. That’s the thing, I suppose, that separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to writers of any genre.
It’s very clear, from pretty much the get-go, that we can’t quite trust our narrator, Lana Granger. As a result, we’re destabilized from the start – but we’re also not against her. This isn’t (sorry, hopefully last Gone Girl reference) like Nick where you know he’s hiding things because he’s blatantly not picking up his incessantly-ringing cellphone, though. This is something a little more deftly shaded, where you understand that Lana is the sort of private person who has had trauma in her past and so she just doesn’t want share. There’s something about the first-person narration that makes this an understandable decision – it’s as though she’s talking to us and she’s trying not to dredge up this stuff that she doesn’t want to talk about and how often do we, as ordinary people, do that? And WHAM right there we’re invested – because Lana seems totally real.
(SPOILERS abound after this point, by the way. I wish I could stay clear but I really want to talk about one thing in particular, so… fair warning.)
The plot itself gets off to a slightly bumpy start – we aren’t quite sure what thread of the story we’re going to follow, whether this missing girl from a few years back or Luke’s craziness or Lana’s relationships with all of these people – but once the wheels are set in motion by Beck’s disappearance, everything starts to hum along simultaneously. I’ll announce with some pride that I figured out two of the big twists long before they arrived (not in a way that undercut the rest of the novel but rather in a way that made me feel even more excited to see it play out) – but another series of twists was waiting, ones that I admit I didn’t see coming and that came as genuine surprises. I’m not sure how I feel about the biggest twist (that relates to Lana specifically as opposed to relating to other people in the story [ed. note – watch me dance around the spoilerrrrrs]) but I’ll allow it simply because it made more sense and required a bit less suspension of disbelief than believing a pre-teen could… well… anyway.
The big spoiler that I do want to talk about (and I’ll try to be as vague as I can) is regarding Lana’s Big Secret. The impact was not at all lessened by my having figured it out in advance and as it slipped out in drips and drabs over the course of the novel, I found myself pleasantly surprised at Unger’s… well, at her audacity, really. We’re seeing more and more tolerance and acceptance in the world these days, but it’s still a dangerous place for those who fall outside of ‘traditional’ gender descriptions – so having Unger tackle the issues of gender dysphoria so directly is really quite impressive. She does it in such a way too as to negate any pre-existing prejudices – because by the time the shoe drops, the reader is already invested in the character and so to suddenly be turned off by a non-issue would be, well, terribly bigoted. Anybody who does put this book down or who slags it off because of the issue in question (I can already picture the surprised “nobody warned me!” assholes coming out online) immediately outs themselves as intolerant – and those who might’ve not picked up the book had the jacket copy mentioned the issue might now see themselves gaining a bit of tolerance.
Plus, it feels original. If we’re going to be seeing this sort of breathless, always-unsure-of-your-footing mystery for a while, you have to do something new with it in order to keep your readers interested beyond the format. To see Unger tackling major societal issues without taking direct aim at them definitely fits the bill.
Rating: 4 out of 5. You know from the start that your narrator is unreliable and that things aren’t what they seem – but Lana Granger is a fantastic character, full of human flaws and foibles and desires, who gets trapped in something when all she wants, desperately, is to be normal for a while. That simple tension underlies everything else in the book and elevates the story from just a mystery to something with a beating heart. That, and the unique (for me, anyway) twist that brings a major social issue into the novel without any effort at all, makes this a mystery well worth your time.
I should add that had the pleasure of chatting with Ms. Unger for a few minutes at the BEA last year (I was last in line for a signed copy of this ARC) and she was wonderfully warm and charming – and that, honestly, made the dark, delicious pulse of this novel even better. Here’s hoping more authors follow her lead (and that they have her talent, too).