The Short Version: Eight years ago, Anna’s daughter Julie was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom. The family never quite recovered from the incident – but when Julie shows up on their doorstep in the present, it begins a whole new kind of disruption. Anna believes the news to be wholly good – but when a PI brings up some inconsistencies, she begins to wonder just who this woman actually is. Meanwhile, the woman’s past is revealed through layered flashbacks, keeping her identity a question right up to the very end.
The Review: I like a good subtitle. “A Novel of Suspense” is scrawled right across the lurid cover, giving you no wiggle room about what it is you’re going to get when you open this book. Of course, the thing about a subtitle like that is that the novel must then deliver. You’re promising me suspense, so any lapse will be judged harshly.
On these merits, Gentry’s novel is a success: I was kept in suspense regarding the main question of the novel – is this woman actually Julie? – until nearly the very end of the book. And, in fact, Gentry pulls off a second layer of that question, the version that looks like “can a parent really ever know their child?” while retaining the suspense of that surface layer. The result is that the answer to the latter doesn’t actually impact the former but they’re also both terrifically intertwined.
Structurally, the novel is pretty predictable: we alternate between Anna’s first person POV & Julie’s third person POV in the present, with smaller chapters titled only by a name that detail this mysterious woman who we’re currently calling Julie’s path towards said present. Gentry skillfully crafts the arc of these shorter chapters, usually dropping some tidbit (even just the girl’s former name) that pushes you forward, wanting to get to the next bit of information. The comparisons to the thrillers of the moment are well earned, but the one I saw most clearly was to Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger, which uses a similar device of a woman taking and shedding identities as needed (albeit to greater effect). And the gambit of various points-of-view works, especially in conjunction with these flashbacks: we get the sense that whoever Julie is maybe doesn’t even have a true ‘first-person’ mind anymore. Trauma has blocked that core of identity away.
Speaking of trauma, Gentry seems as interested in the psychological impact of Julie’s reappearance as she does the circumstances of it. Her author bio mentions that she’s spent many years volunteering with victims of sexual and domestic violence and she’s adept at addressing these questions of psychology without being gross about it. Nothing feels exploitative or tabloid-y – but instead, we’re given a pretty unvarnished look into the way that a second life-changing event like this could radically disrupt everything you think and do.
Where she’s less successful is in the actual mystery part of Anna and Julie’s story, the actual in-story attempts to suss out the truth. As the reader, we’re obviously given far more information than any one character gets to see – and so the mystery has a different kind of urgency for us. Anna’s quest, as it were, feels less important to us because we know that the ultimate reveal will be forthcoming with a level of understanding that she might never achieve. I almost wonder if the novel could’ve left out the PI’s interventions and instead allowed the inevitable doubt (“how could this be my daughter? how is that possible?” to creep in – and if that might’ve even ratcheted the suspense another notch further.
I’m attempting to dance around certain aspects of the novel that might be construed as spoilers – because they do move you propulsively through the story. I was completely unprepared for the eventual revelations behind Julie’s kidnapping and a major confrontation at the climax of the novel had me ripping through pages. It was only after I got through those pages that I realized… it felt, again, like something out of a slightly different novel than the one I’d been reading. Gentry’s history working with victims of sexual violence definitely influenced the writing again here and while I’m thrilled that the story was told how it was, I also found it to be not quite what I wanted / what the novel had been promising. The truest and strongest parts of this book were the ones where both Julie and Anna were questioning themselves and each other – and I think it could’ve stood on its feet as a novel of suspense with just those questions. A more sensational ending didn’t hurt and certainly put the story into larger context, but it changed the book for me and made it feel a little less personal.
Rating: 3 out of 5. A well-built thriller with some interesting psychological explorations to boot. There’s nothing terribly new about what Amy Gentry does here, but it doesn’t need to be new; she sets up a fascinating scenario and then plays it out. She’s not try to rock the boat or make you marvel at her inventiveness. Instead, she keeps you twisting in the wind around a single central question for nearly the entire novel – something that even many of the greatest thrillers are incapable of pulling off. It’s only a matter of personal preference that I wanted the novel to be a little less predictable everywhere else, too.