I enjoyed Collins’s debut, The Winter Sister, and so when I was invited to read and review this second novel, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
Have you ever had someone in your life that’s a hot mess and makes terrible decisions, one after another? This felt a little bit like that, at least during the periods when I believed the character; and I did, some of the time. But whereas The Winter Sister held together beautifully until the implausible ending—a common issue with mysteries and thrillers—this one is riddled with difficulties throughout.
Fern had a traumatic childhood. Her father used her to conduct cruel experiments, deliberately terrifying his daughter in a variety of ways so that he could write about her responses. Now she’s grown and gone, though not surprisingly plagued by serious mental health issues, but healing nonetheless, and he summons her home. He says he needs her. Against the advice of stable people in her adult life, Fern packs her bags and comes a-runnin’. Who knows? Maybe her daddy wants to say sorry; perhaps he is terminally ill and set on making amends.
Well, um, no.
Upon her return, three terrible things happen almost immediately. First of all, her father, Ted, has not changed a bit, and he only called her back because he’s moving and doesn’t have time to pack. He wants her to pack for his move. He doesn’t plan to help pack his own crap, and he doesn’t plan to pay her for her time. Plus, he still plays cruel tricks on her, just like bad old times.
On top of this, her best friend’s sadistic brother, Cooper, is still around, and he’s still not a real nice guy. She discovers this almost immediately firsthand.
And on a trip to the store, she runs across a book, a memoir written by Astrid Sullivan. Flash! Bang! She knows that face, doesn’t she? Did she know Astrid? Now Astrid has been murdered, and Fern has been having dreams about her, which might be flashbacks. Has she buried memories of the murder? And…WHO would have DONE such a thing? Nobody SHE knows would do a mean thing like that! Unless…naw.
The story is told in alternate narratives, Fern’s and Astrid’s, courtesy of her memoir. This method does build a sense of dread, but it feels a little choppy in the telling. In addition, I had difficulty believing the character’s motivation. I could see reflexively running home—I’ve known people that would do the same—but what I cannot understand is why, when she found out what Ted’s big emergency was, she didn’t toss her bag back in her car, say Buh-bye and good luck with the move, and hightail it home.
There’s a lot of extraneous business here; we have Fern’s mental health problems, and on top of it all, she’s pregnant. (Oh, good idea. A baby. What could possibly go wrong?)
I believe Collins has a great book in her, but this isn’t it. That’s okay; back to the drawing board. Life is long. But reader, as for you, I recommend you either pass this one up, or read it free or cheap.