You’ve probably had a friendship that just sort of… drifted apart, right? One day the two of you were inseparable: on the phone constantly and out at the clubs together every night. Then you looked up, and your sole communication was an annual holiday greeting - then even that disappeared. Maybe once in a while you wonder whatever happened to your old friend.
Imagine that it was your daughter: that’s what happened to Anne Cassidy and her Miranda. On the day of Miranda’s twenty-eighth birthday, when Anne dug the latest change-of-address postcard out of her little black book and phoned her daughter, she only heard her Miranda's voicemail greeting. What she didn’t know was that weeks earlier, the girl had stumbled, wasted, from the wreckage of her car one rainy summer night and – in direct contravention of everything Mom had taught her – accepted a ride from a stranger. But it’s not what you think - or maybe it is.
Her name’s Randa now, and she lives three states away. She hasn’t bothered to call Mom, quit her old job, or even check that answering machine. Miranda is always looking for the next something better – though for her, “better” generally means “just different.” She's pretty much been like that since the day her father disappeared twenty years ago. Her mother has been like she is, too: a bit neurotic, a bit compulsive about her husband's death while flying a secret mission in Central America. Small wonder that both Anne and Miranda have a mini-obsession with the CIA.
When a faint maternal sixth sense informs Anne that something's not right with her daughter, the ensuing cross-country flight to that latest address concludes with an empty apartment, abandoned cat, and overfilled voicemail box, but no daughter. According to a helpful neighbor, it’s been at least two months with no word. Is Miranda dead, slaughtered and buried in the woods behind her sleazy roadhouse hangout? Perhaps the nice police lieutenant can help. Meanwhile, a few hours away on the coast, Randa drifts aimlessly through a subculture of summer workers, unfazed by the handful of young women taken by a serial killer that summer at her beach; if it’s her time, she supposes it’s her time. She is slightly troubled by the sporadic reappearances of George, her ride out of Pittsburgh those two months ago, but sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are more likely to occupy her mind at any given moment. Guess she thinks, "What Mom doesn't know won't hurt her." Could it be what Miranda doesn't know will hurt her?
In just her second novel (after 2005's Josie and Jack), Kelly Braffet turns one particular thriller genre upside down and inside out. Last Seen Leaving may have a serial killer and a girl in trouble, just like ten thousand other crime thrillers, but the tension Braffet creates is of another world entirely. Not for Braffet the thrill of the hunt as a noir detective or a crack forensic team unravels the skein of clues; instead, hers is the unraveling of the slow disintegration of a relationship between mother and daughter. In Braffet's hands, Last Seen Leaving becomes more than a mere blank to fill on a missing persons report - it becomes the symbol of the divide between mother and daughter.
For once, the tension isn't watching a killer play the authorities like a trout. For once, the thrill isn't catching a killer before he "escalates." Instead, Braffet concentrates on building tension as a mother suspects the worst while, twelve hours away, daughter coasts though a nihilistic life: two lives that should be intertwined running in sad parallel. Throughout, she provides glimpses into the road the two women followed to this sad juncture, the long, slow erosion of the family as mother obsesses and daughter withdraws. All the signs are there: Miranda's formulaic "goth" non-conformism, her screaming fights with her mother, her aimless passage though life. Not that Anne's a perfect mother, either, having bodily ripped her daughter away from her grandparents and plunked her down 2500 miles away, having spent the last twenty-two years in a constant state of denial. Neither of these women is an admirable soul.
Braffet has succeeded in making the broken halves of the Cassidy family human, if not particularly likeable: Mom's pretty neurotic, after all; and daughter is a bare step above trashy. Braffet makes good use of shifting points of view and of flashbacks, more than once telling of the long-ago events as seen through the eyes of both mother and daughter. She also reveals a command of the small detail, both humanizing her characters and demonstrating just how far the two have grown apart:
"If one were to judge Miranda's priorities by the contents of her apartment and the amount of money she spent on them, the things she cared about were fabric softener, alcohol, and toilet paper. The things she did not care about were peanut butter, dish soap, and frozen vegetables. Her laundry detergent was Mountain Spring-scented and her deodorant was Shower-fresh. The most-used lipstick in her makeup bag was called Soft Raisin, the least, Purple Nurple."
Thus Braffet reminds all of Mom's admonition to always wear clean underwear in case we're in an accident; likewise reminds us all that our children will one day be grownups all their own. And her message rings loud and clear: a mother and daughter may speak only occasionally and only see each other every few years, but the blood knows.