I must confess: I have read several books by Jennifer McMahon and my opinions on them have ranged from compelling (Promise Not to Tell) to befuddling (Don’t Breathe a Word). I am happy to say that The One I Left Behind was closer to Promise Not to Tell territory, but it did not quite live up to my enjoyment of that book.
Reggie is a typical 13 year old girl who likes hanging out with her friends Tara and Charlie. Her mother, Vera, is a beauty who had limited success in a hand cream advertisement, but never made much of a splash in Hollywood circles. Reggie hangs out in a tree house, experiments with dark habits (like cutting), and fantasizes about boys.
A serial killer becomes active in Reggie’s town. He is dubbed Neptune and his methods are similar each time he strikes. He leaves the severed hand of his female victim on the steps of the local police station. Five days later, the body of the woman is left somewhere in town. While this has the town understandably in an uproar, it becomes very personal to Reggie when her glamorous mother is taken. Her hand appears on the steps of the police station. But her mother’s body never appears.
Flash forward 20 years or so. Reggie is a successful architect, specializing in “green” buildings, when she gets a call. Her mother has been located alive. For the past two years, Vera has been in a homeless shelter, and she is now dying from cancer. She mostly mutters rhymes and riddles that don’t make sense. Reggie, who was fascinated with the Neptune case as a child, now seeks to find out the answers about what happened to her mother.
Tara, Reggie’s childhood friend and confidante, reappears to serve as Vera’s nurse. The relationship between Tara and Reggie is strained because of an event that occurred when she was a teenager. But when Tara also disappears, Reggie has even more of an impetus to act.
One thing that McMahon does well is to create a spooky place. There always seems be something off about the settings in her novels. The One I Left Behind is no exception. The family home is weirdly called Monique’s Wish. I don’t remember why, but that sort of “offness” (for lack of a better term) lead to unease.
I did find the same weakness in this novel that I also found in Don’t Breathe a Word. Some of the characters in McMahon’s novels are not just memorable—they are downright strange. Not in the sense that a guy cutting off women’s hands is strange. That is supposed to be weird. But the supporting cast in this novel is full of misfits and weirdos. It seems that the only normal people around are the police chief and Regina’s boyfriend. It leaves me feeling that this “world” that McMahon has created is not full of reliable people. It feels unrealistic and I find myself unable to discern the motives, intents, and thought patterns of nearly all of the characters. A little of this goes a long way, I think. I get frustrated when it seems every character has some weird fetish or ideas.
I did not guess who the bad guy was, but frankly, there is a limited cast of characters, so it was not that difficult to narrow down the suspects. (Don’t rely on me to gauge how difficult it was to guess the villain. I could not guess who-done-it when I was in second grade reading Encyclopedia Brown, and I still cannot.) And I am still not sure that I understand the motivation for the killings. Yes, I know that a killer is not supposed to make sense. But, on some level, he is if he is fictional, and I guess I didn't buy the reason that Neptune gave as his motivation. In the end, I did enjoy this novel, but with some reservations. Recommended to fans of atmospheric thrillers.
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina