February 2022 – The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell
First, let it be said that Lisa Jewell is an author who can keep you engaged and entertained as she masterfully spins her tales of suspense. She certainly did that with Zion’s Book Club as they read The Night She Disappeared for their February selection. And the engagement persisted even though the author jumped back and forth in time with each new chapter! She introduced new characters at every turn so that we had some difficulty in keeping everyone straight. Indeed, at least one reader made a list of names for reference. Another felt the constant jumping and new names made reading the book feel like work. Still another felt she had never read a book where the author provided such a plethora of possible perpetrators with legitimate motives.
But what was the crime, or more accurately WAS there a crime? In a rather rural English village, a young couple, Tallulah and Zack, went to a party one night and never returned. There was no evidence of foul play, no evidence of them anywhere. Tallulah had recently borne Zack’s baby, and both parents were devoted to the child. Tallulah’s mother, Kim, would not accept that the parents could simply walk away, but detectives found no clues to their whereabouts. Then a new headmaster arrives at the local private school accompanied by his girlfriend, a published writer of mysteries. Sophie, experiencing writer’s block with her new book, finds the local disappearance compelling especially after she finds a sign outside the garden gate that says ‘Dig here’ with an arrow pointing downward. She does and, of course, finds something that now, a year after the disappearance, reignites the case.
As the bones of the story were revealed chapter by chapter, our readers met Scarlett, a young woman from a well-to-do family, both repellent and attractive, who seemed to gather young people to her only to dump them when her interest waned. Her mother, a totally self-absorbed woman, lived with Scarlett and Scarlett’s brother in an old mansion deep in the barely penetrable woods behind the school. Ms. Jewell expertly wove the creep factor through the characters and the setting. Zack was revealed as controlling, verging on physically abusive with Tallulah. Zack’s mother, another self-absorbed woman who seemed to lack any maternal instincts, provided a contrast to Tallulah’s mother who was left to care for the infant and deal with her grief. The dynamics of a mother’s love or lack of it played out over the course of the book in the different families.
As gripping as the story is, our readers still had to suspend belief every now and then to ignore the holes in Ms. Jewell’s plot. Sophie didn’t recognize immediately that she, herself, had used the ‘Dig here’ clue in her very first book? The secret tunnel at the old mansion that no one found for over 200 years was discovered by Scarlett just on a hunch? The police didn’t think it suspicious that Scarlett’s family chose to leave on a cruise on a private yacht right after the disappearance?
The side stories that never went anywhere were a bit distracting. Sophie’s relationship with her headmaster boyfriend seemed fragile, and a relationship between Kim and the detective, Dom, was certainly intimated. However, neither couple’s story was resolved. Ms. Jewell did finalize the title’s mystery by the end of the book (which, in all fairness, should have been The Night They Disappeared – poor Zack got short shrift there), wrapping up most of the details in a neat package including that burning oil smell mentioned enough times to attract our attention.
Although some of the events in the book were a stretch, the author kept us coming back, ready for more details to be revealed, wanting to see how these very different people were going to come together, relate, grow, find their way. Could Tallulah get her act together? What would she do to leave an abusive relationship and protect her child? How could Zach’s mother be so blithely unconcerned about a child’s disappearance? Was Scarlett as amoral as she seemed and how did she manipulate everyone so readily (a type of character our readers had seen in real life)? Could Sophie piece together the random clues and solve the mystery while discovering the limits of her own relationship? Without giving away the ending, we can heartily recommend this book. As can be seen from our voting, it’s a great read – 9 readers gave it one thumb up and 1 gave it two thumbs up! In March, we meet to discuss Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. Happy reading!