If this is Polly Stewart’s debut crime novel, get ready for more splendid books in the future because as a writer, this book is extremely well written.
The exploration of Virginia’s landscape, the towns, the community, the people, and the insight Stewart gives into their relationships, bring this book alive.
On the cover, the book is described as a thriller, a mystery. It is not a thriller and only hints at a mystery.
The two major plotlines concern high school friends Nicola Bennett and Lauren Ballard. Ballard, the popular one, Bennett, the loyal companion. Stewart takes us through their years together up to the point where Ballard goes missing. She leaves behind a husband and a very young daughter.
The day before she went missing, Ballard damaged a car as punishment for parking too close to her. It is not clear whether Ballard was perfectly parked herself to begin with or that the driver parked so close on purpose. Yet, she vandalizes the car. Is that the catalyst for her disappearance? No, it is too simple.
The car is described as a new Chevy Silverado so if bought from a dealer, vandalism is covered in your comprehensive car policy. In other words, not a reason to kidnap a person and make them disappear. It immediately, at least for me, shifted the tone of the crime novel indicating that whatever happened to Ballard is grounded in the past.
Bennett, who after graduation tried to get her career going, ends up back in her old town in Tyndall County. This plotline follows all the thoughts Bennett once had as a teen, believed them to be true, only to discover twenty years later that there’s another side to the story. She wishes to catch up with people, but they have moved on. She wishes to be unnoticed by some as being back in town feels like a failure. She wishes to make amends but is stunned that people do not forgive and console her.
Bennett returned home to prepare and ultimately sell her mother’s house as she passed away. However, the reader gets the feeling that secretly Bennett is fixing the house with the option to live there herself. There is no other home, no other place where she set up roots. She accepts a job in the county’s public school system as you feel she needs to be back in that old high school because psychologically, she has not made peace with the past. She never moved on. She never understood her feelings for people then and still does not understand them when she sees people after twenty years as an adult. She doesn’t understand herself.
Old actions on Bennett’s part, that had lasting effects on others, now present themselves as revelations hinting at her immaturity. That same immature causes her to make bad decisions in the present while she tries to find out what happened to Ballard. Ballard’s remains were never found. Did she go missing or did she disappear of her own free will? Who would do this to her and in case she faked her crime, why?
We meet several characters in the book. Lovers, husbands, their brother, and his friends. Their stories are wonderfully described, and it is a joy to read. Stewart took her time developing their lines.
The book’s ending though feels as if it was quickly written down after the idea came up. However, unlike the rest of the book, it never benefitted from the time Stewart dedicated to polishing the prose and finding the right words. Is the ending possible? Doubtful as it required a lot of planning that somehow does not seem to match the character. It is for you to find out who I am talking about. When you do, ask yourself why they turned out like this. I am not convinced that becomes clear in the book.
The pace of the book is not what you’d expect from a thriller. There are a few mysterious elements but they do not dominate the plot. I guess that Stewart’s book is at its best when it forces the reader to think about the characters’ actions and reflect upon their own lives. What would I have done? We all have dark and light in us. We can all be tempted, but where do you draw the line? Would I have interfered, would I have asked for help, would I be able to turn in someone I know? Would I be able to swallow my pride and tell the truth? And most importantly, why do I feel stuck and in need of these answers before I can move on?
Stewart’s book is a joy to read even if it isn’t what I thought it was going to be. I will not hesitate to pick up her next one. My other book reviews are here.