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Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review: AND SHE WAS

And She Was, by Alison Gaylin (HarperCollins, 2012)
978-0-06-187820-6
$7.99 paper

Nelson Wentz contacts Brenna Spector, private investigator, because his wife has disappeared, and he can’t get the police to believe that Carol isn’t simply another runaway wife. Long before Brenna discovers that Carol herself had been pursuing another missing person, she encounters numerous memory triggers to scenes from her own past. For one thing, there was the disappearance of her own older sister, a mystery that still remains unsolved, another case of police dismissing a vanishing as a standard runaway. And because younger Brenna felt somehow, at least in part, culpable for the hole in her family, she took note of the later disappearance of six-year-old Iris Neff, one for which Carol Wentz felt responsible.

Where are all these missing people? Carol Wentz, Iris Neff, Iris’s mother, Lydia, and Brenna’s sister, Clea? What has become of them, and are the only connections in Brenna’s head?

Brenna, you see, has an unusual condition: its name is hyperthymestic syndrome. She forgets nothing. Name a date, and she can tell you where she was, what she was doing, and she’ll be seeing and hearing everything as it happened then, as if the distant day were the present. If she saw a face or a number or an address once, it’s in her memory forever. Such a condition has obvious advantages for someone in her line of work, but the remembered images don’t automatically add up to infallible answers. As Brenna puts it, “Just because I remember everything, it doesn’t mean I’m right about everything.” Like the rest of us, Brenna is capable of drawing false conclusions from insufficient evidence.

In fact, Brenna Spector often experiences her peculiar memory as a kind of curse, since anything can serve as an association that triggers a recurrence of the past, often at inconvenient moments. Eruptions of the past can distract her from work or a conversation with her daughter or simply take her out of the present when she would rather remain there. Almost every reader of this novel will be without Brenna’s gift or curse--the condition is extremely rare--but will feel sympathy and admiration for the character. She is a hard-working, caring, vulnerable but strong woman, lonely without being pitiful, the brave, competent woman other women want to be. It is because we don’t want to see her remain lonely and in danger that we accompany Brenna so eagerly along the difficult and confusing trajectory of her story.

Other interesting characters enliven the scenes. Brenna’s assistant is a young techno-geek who frequents nightclubs and decks out in see-through fashion and body piercings. Trent’s slang is so current that it sometimes leaves his boss without a clue to his meaning. He’s always on her case to upgrade to a more complicated cell phone, too. A younger character still is Brenna’s daughter, Maya. There is just enough of Maya, her father (Brenna’s ex-) and her stepmother, along with flashbacks to Brenna’s vanished sister and a glancing allusion or two to her mother, to give a sense of the treacherous family shoals our private P.I. has to navigate when she’s not immersed in an investigation.

And then there is Detective Nick Morasco. He’s a cop, but he and Brenna are, she thinks, on the “same side.” He smells comfortingly of Ivory soap. If only he had paid some attention years before when she called the police station to volunteer information following up a lead in Iris Neff’s disappearance!

In any novel of suspense, it’s up to the author to give readers a satisfying explanation in the end. Alison Gaylin does that and more. She left this reader satisfied with the conclusion of this complicated, convoluted case but also wanting more--wanting to continue vicariously enjoying Brenna Spector’s adventures and victories, wanting to go forward into her future to see how her family relationships will evolve and what possible remedy may present itself for her loneliness.

The sale date for And She Was is February 28, 2012. That date appears on the back of the ARC. Following the author’s note following the text of the novel I was happy to find the welcome announcement of a sequel due out in the fall of 2012. I’m hoping for a whole series. I’m already hooked on this gutsy P.I.

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