My sister has a theory that if you and your significant other can’t decide on a movie to watch together, always choose the action one. Romantic comedies often fall flat and just aren’t particularly enjoyable for men, but no one ever walks out of the theater after seeing a Jason Bourne movie and says, “I just wasn’t that into it.”
The same is true for me with books. The books that I can’t put down are usually in the true crime genre, and often a good mystery thriller comes along and surprises me. I have a book in my possession at all times; while other people take smoke breaks or step away from their desks for lunch, I take reading breaks.
I’ve been known to launch a paperback across the room – about 100 pages in – because it was going nowhere and the author wasted my time. Being on a bestseller list doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to enjoy your prose. Joyce Carol Oates, I’m looking at you.
I picked up “What She Knew” by Gilly MacMillan on a whim and am glad I did.
The book starts with newly-divorced Rachel Jenner going for a walk in the woods with her 8-year-old son and their dog. She lets the little boy run ahead, loses track of him for a minute and, well, long story short, he goes missing. Ben has been kidnapped.
The cast of characters unfold including the cliché hard-nosed detective, Rachel’s ex-husband and his new wife, Jenner’s sister who always wanted a boy of her own, Ben’s female teacher and male teaching assistant and a journalist friend of Rachel’s who potentially can’t be trusted. All might have motive, and it’s also implied that Rachel may be an unfit mother for letting the child out of her sight.
There are a few moments – like when Rachel is flipping through pages of Ben’s artwork and realizes he essentially mapped out his weekly routine of walking the dog in the woods near his home – where the reader gasps. Oh, no, it was someone from the school. Then there is a moment where we learn that Rachel’s sister has been lying to her for decades about something pretty important. Our focus shifts to the sister. There’s a potential sex offender in the area; what about him? The book keeps the reader guessing until the very end.
Rachel, the mother, isn’t a particularly likeable character. She goes off script in a press conference and yells at reporters. She is portrayed by school personnel as somewhat negligent and a little scatterbrained. She’s been reeling since her divorce and seems to be fumbling in the dark as she tries to navigate single motherhood.
Every parent probably makes choices occasionally – such as letting a child out of their sight for a minute or two at the park or the grocery store or, well, it happened to me at Schlitterbahn – that they determine later were not so wise. But not many people have to live with the panic and fear of having a child abducted or missing.
I researched this book to look at some of the other reviews and it struck me how people would write things like, “Poor Ben. He was out there in the woods without a jacket and it had been raining.” Hey guys, Ben is a fictional character. But that’s the power of this novel. It sucks you in to the point that you care about the characters and you want to know what’s going to happen to Ben. Is he alive? Will he be returned to his mother? Will she freak out and take matters into her own hands? It’s pretty compelling, and as unlikely as this is to happen to any of us, it’s strangely relatable. We’ve all used poor judgment that haunted us later.
If I have any criticism of this book, it’s that it’s very British. There are certain phrases that seem a little silly – referring to the child’s mother as his “mum,” for example, or saying that someone stepped away to use the loo. The author is, in fact, British, so it’s not like she’s trying to posture some sort of undeserved refinement; it just lends a layer to the book that almost needs translating. The police officers are called inspectors and all the titles are abbreviated. Some chapters are devoted entirely to the lead cop’s sessions with a therapist. It doesn’t add much to the narrative except that we care a little more about the outcome because we see that law enforcement also cares.
I give it a four out of five, and as always, I’m happy to pass along my copy to the next person. I’ll definitely be checking out Gilly MacMillan’s other books.
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