Autumn. Its arrival always stirs feelings of longing and heartache within me, somehow a mirror-like manifestation of the shorter, darker days and increasingly-blustery winds that rip through southwestern Kansas.
One half of me embraces the warm pull of seasonal excitement: plush sweaters, spiced lattes, pumpkin-scented everything; the other half of me bleakly recalls my skin’s hatred of scratchy fibrous knits, the area’s (abysmal) lack of coffee shops, and my personal revulsion to all things pumpkin-flavored. But all of me knows and responds to the call of dark, mysterious fiction to accompany the encroaching dim evenings. Cue my first September read: Where They Found Her, by Kimberley McCreight (author of Reconstructing Amelia, which I kinda liked, kinda didn’t).
The cover of this book pulled me in — the dark, foggy forest looming in sharp contrast to the bright yellow rain jacket of the faceless and nameless girl instantly piqued my curiosity. Adding to my appeal: a blurb by Gillian Flynn in the bottom left-hand corner of the cover. Yep. Sold.
Where They Found Her is set in the small, affluent community of Ridgedale, New Jersey, which is home to a prestigious college (I pictured a private, liberal arts institution). The town is the epitome of small-town communities: people seem to know almost everyone (& their business), the crime rate is low (almost nonexistent), opinions about everything are both “expert” and forthcoming.
Imagine civilians’ shock, then, when the unthinkable happens: a body is found on the banks of a wooded creek. An infant body. Thus begins a fast-paced quest to discover both the mother of the child and the killer — synonymous, in many Ridgedale citizens’ minds.
McCreight’s strengths clearly lie in her ability to meticulously craft lead characters. The story alternates in its telling from the perspectives of Molly Sanderson, a reporter for the Ridgedale Reader (and newbie in town); Barbara Carlson, resident helicopter mom and wife of the Chief of Police; and Sandy Mendelson, high school dropout and the only responsible member of her highly dysfunctional family. Between the narrative chapters that follow these three women closely, McCreight has threaded in newspaper articles, comments from online forums, transcripts from therapy sessions, and diary entries. Her use of these alternative sources adds juicier layers to the story and deepens the readers’ understanding of the prejudices and stereotypes held by the people of Ridgedale. (Which, by the way, are a close parallel to many of the conversations you could expect to find on Facebook or a local news outlet’s web page. Lesson for the reader, much?)
Where They Found Her is more than just a thriller — it’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when people refuse to acknowledge the realities other people face on a daily basis. It’s a bit of a lesson in compassion, asking readers the question (but never outright): What do you really know about your neighbors and their struggles?
What was lacking? Clarity, in the beginning. I read the first half of this novel during the school week in the evenings. By the time Friday night rolled around and I had all the free time in the weekend world, I was ready to knock out the rest of the book . . . but things were so twisted in the novel, and there were so many ridiculous ties to minor characters, I almost bailed at the halfway point. For a good two hours, I halfheartedly read a bit, flipped back to review a minor detail I’d overlooked, set the book down with a sigh, and took it back up again.
What was noteworthy? McCreight’s characters were distinctly developed. Sometimes authors who switch back and forth between multiple characters struggle to create unique, separate identities. This was not the case in Where They Found Her. Barbara, pain in the ass that she is, may be the most well-written character in the entire novel. Additionally, despite the rough start, the second half of the novel had me gripped in its icy clutches. I had some pretty strong hunches about a few outcomes (and ended up being right), but McCreight still managed to keep me hooked — and surprised by some major events — up to the very end.
Rating: 3/5 stars. This one won’t stick with you forever, and probably isn’t worth purchasing . . . but it’s worth borrowing when you’ve got a wide-open weekend and a hankering for dark mysteries.