Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on After Her.
Maynard laces this coming-of-age story set in Marin County, not far north of San Francisco, with the evils of a serial killer who prays on young girls on the isolated hiking trails of Mount Tamalpais. Focusing on the lives of Rachel Torricelli and her little sister, Patty, Maynard develops a fast-paced plot that constantly keeps the reader engaged as she weaves back and forth between Rachel’s life and the identity of the killer.
Twelve-year-old Rachel and her sister, Patty, live on Morning Glory Court in 1979. Both your typical teenagers, the girls are enthralled by the pop-group The Knack in an area famous for the hippies who once came to town for the Summer of Love. Patty is more of a tomboy, uninterested in dolls, and taking to basketball instead. Rachel proves to be the more romantic and imaginative of the two. She absolutely idolizes their father, Anthony Torricelli, a man accustomed to “charming the female populations.” A beat cop turned hard-working detective, Anthony no longer lives with his family yet showers love and affection upon his daughters when he can.
The opening chapters of After Her provide a treasure chest of insights into the Torricelli family dynamics. Maynard charms the reader, opening us up to the jewels that are Rachel’s adolescent expressions and insights into the world around her, and also her fears about becoming a woman. Left alone by their fragile and depressed mother and forced to fend for themselves in a tough world, the bond between two sisters becomes unshakable, as does the bond with their father, who appears often before them like some handsome, charismatic detective from the hit TV show Starsky and Hutch.
Tamalpais is Rachel and Patty’s true playground, its twisting trails symbolic of how their young lives take unpredictable turns, opening up for them a picture of a bigger world than they ever could have known in the confines of their house and yard: the mountain
“It was the place we found out about everything, that mountain. Animal bones and deer scat. Birds, flowers, condoms. The bodies of dead animals, the bodies of men. Rocks and lizards. Sex and death.” Life is seldom as innocent as we would like, a notion not lost on the sisters when they find themselves taking on the job of amateur sleuths in their father’s investigation into the murder of Charlene Grey, the first victim of the “Sunset Strangler.”
Chosen to head the enquiry, Detective Torricelli is at first the local hero, his sudden fame resulting in Rachel’s own unexpected rise in social status with her school friends. But as the body count piles up and the cops fail to uncover clues to the identity of the heinous killer, Anthony goes from being a media superman and a heroic father to an inept, broken-down husk, stymied by the case and by his inability to outwardly cement his romance with the love of his life, beautiful Margaret Ann.
Rachel, meanwhile, harbors a big and shameful secret—she’s positive she knows the identity of the Sunset Strangler—even as the images of his victims burn into her psyche. Visions of the murdered girls come to her: their bodies lying with their skirts pushed up and their panties off, with only their lace-less shoes left at the scene. These visions coincide with Rachel’s anxious anticipation of blood, and it seems as though her march toward fertility brings with it a growing sense of impending danger.
Slipping from the past to the present and a grown Rachel, the relationship with Patty and her father (and the identity of the Sunset Strangler) comes full circle. From the first compelling pages, Maynard establishes a stark counterpoint between the evils of a terrifying murderer and the first fearful blush of Rachel’s sexual longings. While Patty struggles sometimes to find an identity for herself, Rachel suffers the most, riding into adulthood emotionally blunted by Anthony’s frustrations and his misfortunes.
With a compassionate pen, Maynard sculpts Rachel’s world not out of epic ideas or fantastic adventure but from the love she has for her sister and for her idealized, romantic version of her father. Basking in the triumph of everyday life, the author also reveals not just the ambiguity of human nature but also its horror, which for Rachel turns out to be both equally believable and as frightening as the looks of a cold-blooded killer.