SEPTEMBER 4, 2017
THE WORD “GIRL” is tellingly absent from the title of Janelle Brown’s Watch Me Disappear, despite other surface similarities — a missing woman, a troubled marriage, a suspenseful plot — with the recent slew of “missing girl” novels. Its premise is hardly novel in this post–Gone Girl era. The cultural fascination with these narratives doesn’t seem to be waning: we love to read about missing girls. Especially ones who may or may not, in fact, be missing.
In this case, however, the missing person in question is definitely a woman, not a girl. Billie, a former environmental activist turned suburban mom, is bold, worldly, relentlessly ready to try something new, someone who puts herself and her own needs first. She is no victim — this is not a narrative that thrives on violence. Instead, she’s assuredly in charge of her own fate. Billie “had that thing,” as an old friend puts it. “She was the girl everyone wanted to be. Or be around.” The type of girl who got voted to Homecoming Court in high school and was too cool to bother to show up to the dance. Billie was “beautiful, with the kind of unforgettable face you see in old movies.” What her husband Jonathan loved most about her was “her capacity for joy, her fearless abandon.”
But then Billie fails to return from a solo weekend hiking trip in the eerily named Desolation Wilderness of California’s Pacific Crest Trail. The trip wasn’t the first time she’d left her husband and daughter behind, but now they fear it’s the last. Her case is eventually labeled “missing, presumed dead.” Four hundred people show up to the memorial service of the seemingly beloved Berkeley mother.
Having already proven herself master of the page-turner with her two previous novels, Brown succeeds in crafting a narrative that is compulsively readable — it goes down like candy — but she also creates an empathetic portrait of a father and daughter flailing after the loss of the magnetic center that held their family of three together, all the while offering insight into the darker sides of motherhood and a failing marriage. What elevates her novel beyond its use of familiar tropes and themes is a fine eye for detail, a mild social satire, a specificity of place, and two fully realized main characters longing for what they’ve lost.
Billie may be the novel’s swirling, teeming, ever-shifting center, but its emotional core lies with those she has left — namely, her husband, Jonathan, and her teenage daughter, Olive. The novel opens one year after the memorial service, as Jonathan and Olive struggle to cope with a daily existence that’s overlaid with their still very present grief. This grief becomes complicated when they start to suspect that Billie may still be alive. Olive’s evidence is intuitive — she begins to have waking visions of her mother, seeing her everywhere — while Jonathan’s is more concrete, involving uncovered lies and bank account withdrawals. This, of course, raises uncomfortable questions about why the beloved wife and mother would have willingly disappeared.
There’s a tinge of Big Little Lies–esque satire to the novel’s milieu, most notably in an early scene when Jonathan arrives at Olive’s school, where “the Claremont Moms are circling.” They “flutter around Jonathan, a flock of predatory birds in lululemon and boyfriend jeans; hair freed from ponytail elastics in order to swing flatteringly around faces, shoulders thrown back in order to lift chests up to pre-breast-feeding heights.” Watch Me Disappear isn’t as dark or as twisted as Big Little Lies or Gone Girl, though it too explores the instabilities of a marriage that seems perfect on the surface, as well as the quiet, private unhappiness of those who seem, from the outside, to have it all — the looks, the job, the house, the kids, a comfortable lifestyle. But Olive’s flirtation with the supernatural aside, its reality is of the more quotidian variety, which ultimately makes it more relatable.
Brown has a marvelous and attentive eye that makes her a pleasure to read. The accumulation of her exquisitely captured details sets the tone, highlighting, for example, the way a life of privilege can become meaningless when faced with the emotional bankruptcy of devastating loss: Jonathan “drives blindly back across the bay, his mind so muddled that he barely registers the locked-in traffic or the formidable rotting smell from last week’s spilled latte emitting from the backseat of his Prius.” At Olive’s school, “the overworked furnace fills the hallways with a moist fug of girl-scented heat” on rainy days.
The narrative toggles between the points of view of father and daughter, and we sometimes see the same events from each of their perspectives, highlighting the disconnect that comes with their individual grief. Reading this novel is a little like not being able to look away while a friend hurls herself at an unrequited love; you can’t help but feel these two characters are hurtling toward even further heartbreak, and, in the meantime, get caught up in their search. The reader could be forgiven for eventually becoming more invested in their father-daughter relationship than in the outcome of their search for a missing family member who remains continually off-stage.
It’s easy to idealize someone once they’re gone (or at least, once you think they’re gone), when you don’t have to contend with their dishes left in the sink, with the incremental daily disappointments of a shared life. And at first glance, Billie seems worthy of the idolatry Jonathan and Billie heap upon her. Yet dig a little deeper, which Jonathan and Olive do as they embark (first separately and eventually jointly) on investigating Billie’s life and disappearance, and the picture gets more complicated, the rosy hue surrounding Billie’s memory tarnishing, as though oxidizing as it’s exposed to air.
Billie is radically different from Jonathan and Olive, and they both stand in awe of her, continually afraid of disappointing her, of being too ordinary for this woman whose life motto was: “Don’t be average.” While Billie is the type of person who has a period she calls her “Lost Years,” Jonathan can no doubt account for every minute of every year, as he worked his way up the ranks of the tech journalism scene as a junior writer at Decode magazine. Olive lacks her mother’s brash self-confidence, having “always felt herself to be unexceptional.” Until, that is, she starts having visions, her mother appearing before her, and wonders if she may be psychic, if she may have finally found the thing about herself that’s “beyond-bonkers special.”
Although Jonathan is too levelheaded to give Olive’s visions much credence, he too is unwilling to let go:
He maneuvers through the house, picking up the most obviously offending messes, stopping, as he often does, to glance at the easel that sits in the prime spot on the back sunporch. It has Billie’s last, unfinished painting on it: a landscape of some ocean vista, the horizon sketched in pencil, her palette of blue paints dried to a crust. The stool before it remains positioned just so, to catch the last lingering rays of the sun. Sometimes, when Jonathan is not at all sober, he’ll stumble out to stare at the painting and just marvel at the pitiful symbolism of it all.
He remains so besotted, at first, that he gives up his job — something Billie had always encouraged him to do — to become a full-time writer. Instead of “blunting himself flat with bourbon every night, he would have a constructive outlet for all his pain.” His first project? A memoir about his beloved wife.
Brown includes chapters from Jonathan’s work-in-progress in the novel. At first glance, this book-within-a-book may seem gimmicky, an easy vehicle for showcasing Jonathan’s clever reflections. But as the novel progresses, and the narrative of Jonathan’s memoir diverges from his present-tense reality, it becomes a commentary on the ways we construct and shape the narratives of our lives, the way we selectively edit, exaggerating some elements, leaving others out. Jonathan gradually comes to realize that maybe he didn’t know his wife at all. “Only someone fearful of his own ordinariness would buy, so unquestioningly, someone else’s extraordinariness,” he concludes. The more he learns about Billie, the more Jonathan struggles to maintain his narrative, until his project breaks down, resulting in a panicked call from his agent.
The novel’s reflections on the nature of marriage and how you can never truly know another person are insightful, even if not particularly new. Jonathan wonders:
[I]f marriage is about balancing on that fragile intersection between the said and the unsaid, sharing just enough to satisfy the need for intimacy without crossing over into dangerous territory. Shoving everything else under the rug, hoping it doesn’t accrue high enough to trip you up.
But the dual father-and-daughter perspective lends the narrative its freshness. Jonathan’s relentless grief and soul-searching is given respite by Olive’s youthful perspective as she comes of age amid her sadness and confusion, contending with the fracturing memories of her mother.