“I used to want the world for Julie. Now I just want something to bury.”
Thirteen-year-old Julie Whitaker is abducted from her home in Houston late one night while her parents are sound asleep. Her younger sister Jane is awoken by a noise and witnesses the kidnapping from her hiding place in the closet, but is unable to identify the man leading Julie away at knifepoint. The family fragments the way families often fragment in the wake of a tragedy; they become isolated in their own separate spheres of grief and guilt and coping mechanisms. Then, after eight years, Julie reappears on their doorstep, malnourished and emotionally fragile, but alive and with a heartbreaking story to tell of her years of sexual abuse, of being passed around by men and sold to the highest bidder, eventually ending up in Mexico as the prisoner of a powerful drug lord before she was finally able to escape and find her way home to them.
At first, naturally, this miraculous return is cause for joyful relief and celebration, and the family is distracted by the whirlwind of police and doctors and therapists all wanting to be a part of Julie’s story. But once the shock of Julie’s reappearance subsides and there’s more time for contemplation and scrutiny, cracks and contradictions begin to appear in her statements, suggesting that she may be an impostor — an opportunistic con artist capitalizing on a family’s grief and blind faith, slipping into the lie of a life they so desperately want to believe in order to escape her own shady past.
The story is told from the alternating perspectives of the newly appeared Julie and her mother Anna — an emotionally distant literature professor specializing in the Romantics who offers quotations to her children in lieu of affection or motherly advice. She’s the classic aloof academic, book smart without possessing a facility for emotional intelligence. She has damaged her relationship with Jane by retreating from the emotional messiness of Jane’s teenage years, leaving it to her husband Tom to be the confidant and cheerleader her daughter needs. When Julie comes home, she’s no less awkward with her, taking her on an extravagant shopping spree instead of having a heart-to-heart mother/daughter conversation. However, this dispassionate composure is what allows Anna to be present while Julie initially recounts her horrifying experiences over the past eight years to the police; a situation in which an overly sensitive person would be a hindrance. Anna is characterized by detachment, not cruelty, and she carefully redacts Julie’s story when relaying it to her husband later that night, to avoid distressing him more than is strictly necessary:
Later, I tell Tom as little as I can get away with […] I narrate the various stages of her captivity, but not the cigarette burns she got when she tried to escape; the years of rape, but not the way she spoke of them, as if describing the plot of a not particularly interesting television show. I tell him that her captor tired of her, but not that she was too old for him once out of her teens; I tell him that she was blindfolded and taken in a helicopter to a rooftop in Juarez, but not that the guard was most likely supposed to kill her rather than let her go.
Julie is her mother’s daughter when it comes to her emotional availability. Jane called her a “cold fish” even before her disappearance, and her trauma has certainly done nothing to encourage her to be open and trusting. While Tom easily assumes the role of nurturer to both girls, Anna engages in a mental cat-and-mouse game with Julie, trying to pick apart the puzzle of her daughter, who in turn calculates her own countermoves to keep her secrets safe, in an ever-tightening circle.
This tension is handled well — we immediately know that something is off about Julie, but we don’t know quite what it is. We want to believe in the happy reunion, but there are too many jagged edges inviting our suspicion, and once we gain access to Julie’s interior monologue, it becomes clear that neither of our narrators is wholly reliable. Our mistrust of Julie is a result of the ambiguity of her identity, but her endgame and motives are similarly veiled. We can see her pain and we know she’s keeping secrets, but whether she is a sinister force or simply traumatized is unclear. Anna’s unreliability is a consequence of her flawed perception. The difficulty she has in connecting with the people in her life makes the reader question her ability to assess circumstances accurately — since she knows so little about the daughter who didn’t vanish, how can her suspicions about Julie’s identity hold any weight, since Tom and Jane, with their more well-developed capacities for emotional bonding, harbor no such doubts?
This book is more ambitious than many of the overwhelming number of domestic suspense novels published this time of year for the beach-reading audience. Its deft treatment of gender and violence is particularly strong, as it ventures into Megan Abbott’s deliciously disquieting territory — exploring the dark and startling world of adolescent girls with its heady and volatile mixture of hope and inexperience and yearning; a female body that is just learning how to carry itself — becoming aware of its latent sexual power while remaining so dangerously impressionable.
Because while Anna may not be outwardly demonstrative in her love for her children, she’s still a woman who was once a girl, and she knows all about the perilous landmines of female adolescence from her own experiences squirming under the male gaze:
To me, it was just a body. But when summer ended I found out that to the boys in my school, the men in the streets, to anyone who looked, it was more than that; it was an open book full of horrible secrets, a dirty magazine anyone could paw through.
And she had observed Julie beginning to navigate those murky waters herself before her disappearance:
You look at your daughter and it all comes back, every microsecond when you felt that twin surge of shame and fear, but this time it’s outside of you, happening to a body that feels like yours but doesn’t belong to you, so there’s no way to protect it.
A chillingly accurate observation.
In Gentry’s hands, even the most commonplace events are riddled with violent subtext. The description of Julie and Anna’s trip to Target evokes a crime scene straight out of SVU: girlish clothing hastily discarded and strewn about, the insinuation of phallic arrows aimed at where girls are most vulnerable:
But once we’re there, the red walls seem too aggressive somehow, the fluorescent lights glaring on the white linoleum walkways headache-inducing. Julie follows me obediently around the store as if it’s her first time there, or indeed, in any store, and I can’t help but wince at the racks of neon bikinis all tangled up on their hangers, the viscose minidresses lying on the floor under the sale rack, the red-and-white bull’s-eye logo suspended over bins of brightly colored underwear.
There are also plenty of overt depictions of female victimization here: woven in between Anna and Julie’s present-day story is a third alternating narrative thread, one which takes the reader backward through Julie’s (or “Julie’s”???) life from just before her arrival at the Whitaker home to her childhood, a reverse trajectory of experience to innocence depicting the myriad ways a girl can become damaged and the self-protective maneuvers required for a woman to survive that damage. It’s somewhat unsubtle in its relentless Lifetime movie checklist of horrors, but it’s nonetheless an effective device as we see how all of these experiences harden Julie’s emotional armor, eventually transforming her from victim to aggressor, betraying people who genuinely want to help her because she’s become too wary and suspicious to believe in the existence of unconditional kindness. The further this reverse-timeline unspools, the more we understand of the cause-and-effect path which leads to a front door in Houston.
Unfortunately, for all its strengths, the ending of the novel is a bit of a letdown. Rest assured — questions will be answered with perfectly reasonable explanations, but the delivery is more like a slow deflating than a decisive pop! and after absorbing the complete story and looking back on the book as a whole, I’m left with many practical questions that are probably unfair to direct toward a summer thriller, whose purpose is simply to deliver page-turning drama and satisfactorily resolve its central puzzle, all of which this book does. In other words, Good as Gone is not as good as Gone Girl in terms of raising the stakes of the genre, but it’s an entertaining psychological suspense novel, one of the better ones you might take to the beach this summer.