The premise of this book is intriguing enough: Billie, a ‘perfect’ mom, and wife with a mysterious past, disappears during a solo-hike in the wilderness. Not finding a body, Jonathan, the husband, and Olive, their teenage daughter, are left grieving over the charismatic, strong woman they both knew. However, as several interesting snippets of information reach both Jonathan and Olive, there is the nagging suspicion that Billie might be alive. But if she’s alive, where is she? What really happened during that hike?
Brown clearly did not draw any practical boundaries when it came to creating the twists that take place throughout this story. The novel leads with Olive having a vivid vision of her mother, which leads her to believe that her mother is still out there, alive. I put down the book for a second after reading this scene. A vision… seriously? It’s one thing to insert supernatural elements into a work of blatant fantasy or even historical fiction, but in a contemporary thriller taking place in Berkeley, California… this borders on ridiculous. And the sheer ridiculousness just keeps piling up as the novel progresses. However, I must admit that these twists helped keep the novel interesting and entertaining. As more and more came to light, I found myself increasingly compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what really happened to Billie.
Jonathan, Billie’s husband and the father of Olive, initially makes a very positive impression. This is a man that genuinely loved his presumed dead wife, and is trying his best to be a good parent. Having been a workaholic, he now spends his days writing a memoir based on his idealized marriage. Later on, though, he makes it his mission to solve the mystery behind his wife’s disappearance, and digs up some things that were better left buried. Jonathan was a character I would like, but then he started making some seriously questionable decisions. Though he never swerves into ‘this character is a monster’ territory, he loses many points with me as the story progresses.
Olive, who is painted as a tree-hugging teenager, was so inauthentic. She never seemed to act her age. She either sprouted incredibly coherent observations on environmental policy or was knocking on every door thinking that she could locate her mom this way. She was either thirty or twelve, never a true teenager it seemed like. I wanted to like Olive, but she made it hard.
This novel can somewhat be described as combining elements from the novels Reconstructing Amelia and Gone Girl. As with Reconstructing Amelia, we are provided glimpses of the life of a teenage girl attending an elite private school all the while feeling like she is markedly different. Also, even though the mother is the one ‘reconstructing’ her daughter Amelia’s life, essentially the same thing is happening in this novel, except that it is the husband and daughter attempting to reconstruct the wife and mother’s life. The Gone Girl vibe mostly lies in how there’s a nagging suspicion that the missing–or presumably dead–woman was not who she appeared to be. I couldn’t shake the striking similarities as I read Brown’s own mystery/thriller.
The blatantly unrealistic characters and plot devices aided in dragging down my opinion of this otherwise compelling read. This book is, undoubtedly, a true page-turner, and the ending was executed very well. The story moved at a fast-pace and I enjoyed trying to solve the mystery that surrounded Billie’s disappearance. I would be open to reading more of Brown’s writing in the future.