Monday, January 07, 2013

Book 4: The One I Left Behind

I'm not sure how it is possible to both be completely hooked into the plot line of a novel and still feel like it was just "meh" at the end.  That, however, is how I feel about this mystery novel by Jennifer McMahon.  A few of her novels have caught my eye in the past, and I ended up picking this up last week while on an errand to Barnes and Noble (what, I had finished The Passage and desperately needed to know what would happen next).  The premise certainly sounds intriguing - Reggie, a successful architect, receives a call from her aunt that her mother, Vera Dufrane, is in a hospital.  Since Vera has been presumed dead at the hands of the Neptune serial killer for 25 years, this is a rather surprising development.  In 1985, the Neptune serial killer had four victims, all women.  His MO was to leave the severed hand of his latest victim on the steps of the police station, and five days later, he would kill them and leave their naked bodies prominently displayed.  Vera was his last victim, her hand appearing on the steps, though her body (obviously) never showed up on the fifth day.  Now that Vera has returned, people can't help but feel hopeful to finally discover the identity of the killer, but Vera, suffering from cancer and the effects of a life of alcoholism, is clearly suffering from dementia.
The novel flashes back and forth between the present day (or 2010, close enough) and the spring/early summer of 1985 when the killing spree starts.  Reggie and her two friends, Tara and Charlie, all hang out together though there is a bit of a love triangle between the 13 year olds - Reggie likes Charlie who likes Tara who has some issues.  Honestly, while the novel was well written, I really didn't care too much about any of these friends or their dynamics.  It just feels like I've seen it so many times before, often much better done.  Three friends that are misfits?  Check, roger, whatever.  Oh, one of them is a cutter.  It just all seems so by the numbers, especially after reading Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.  If I want to read about cutting, I'll take her.  Reggie's home environment is complicated - she lives with her aunt and her mom, and her mom is a bit of a barfly, always picking up new boyfriends for drinks.  When Reggie was younger, Vera actually took her along at least once, leading to an incident with a dog that led to her losing an ear.  Basically, Reggie has lots of intimacy issues due to her childhood.
The actual mystery was engaging, but I didn't really like Reggie or any of the characters too much.  In addition to the Neptune mystery, the novel hints that something unrelated happened between the three friends that summer, something bad that has haunted them.  I honestly didn't care what it was, and it wasn't much more interesting after the reveal.  I guess the author wanted some big explanation on why the three friends stopped being friends but "they drifted apart" would have been a perfectly acceptable answer to me.  It just seems like I've seen these types of broken, damaged people before.  While it plays into the mystery, would it have been that bad if Reggie had been normal, and was damaged only due to her mother's disappearance instead of adding all this extra stuff?  It just seemed like she was trying to do too much, add too much drama and padding, and it hurt the novel overall by making the characters annoying and unlikeable rather than people whose fate I cared about.

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