Ten years after a kidnapping/abduction with her best friend, Jennifer, Sarah has become a recluse in a New York City apartment. In retreat from the world, she is visited only by her therapist and FBI Agent Jim McCordy, who apprises her of the upcoming parole hearing of Professor Jack Derber, the incarcerated criminal who snatched the girls from an Oregon campus and kept them shackled with two others in his basement for four years. While Sarah manages to escape and the others are later released, Jennifer was not so fortunate, her body never recovered. With the parole hearing looming and letters from Derber regularly delivered, Sarah can think only of recovering her friendís body from the crime scene, of putting her childhood friend to rest.
Now thirty-one, Sarah has made conscious choices to accommodate life after captivity. She works from an apartment, ordering in food and supplies, suffering as few interactions with the outside world as possible. No longer in touch with the other survivors, Tracy and Christine, Sarah realizes the limitations of her enforced isolation: ďI had let my own incapacity to recover from my past shrink my world so that it was big enough for only me.Ē Despite her crippling fears and without notice to therapist or agent, Sarah returns to Oregon, convinced that Derber is sending his victims a coded messageóa challengeóin his nonsensical letters.
Much of Zanís plot is propelled by Sarahís determination, her urge to break free of her role as victim and contravene Derberís release, a clever monster who has claimed both religious conversion and a new wife. Sarah is infuriated by Derberís continued attempts to manipulate his victims through the letters and eventually reaches out to Tracy and Christine, who agree to accompany Sarah to the scene of their nightmare. The psychological tension of then and now, the post-survival effects of captivity, the fits and starts of Sarahís fear-fueled actions are explored in alternating chapters. The girlsí current efforts contrast with dark memories of the years in the cellar: the smells, the sounds, the screams. For Sarah, the quest is vital, her bond to her best friend born of childhood tragedy, an accident that kills Jenniferís mother but not Jennifer or Sarah. Consoling one another, the girls cling together in grief, compiling endless lists of what they must never do, determined to avoid another tragedy. They are careful, even on campus, thinking that safety lies in preparation. But now, without her friendís body, without closure, Sarah cannot let Jennifer go.
Zan has a few surprises in store beyond the mystery of where Jenniferís body is buried, the conventional resolution of such a drama. Victims fighting back to regain their power is the psychological underpinning of the novel. Meanwhile, amid the details of the abduction, captivity and escape, the author plants the seeds of a more heinous enterprise, one with far-reaching consequences that Sarah, Tracy and Christine only stumble upon accidentally. Sarah remains the primary protagonist, appearing unannounced at Professor Derberís campus to interview his colleagues, then visit a secret BDSM club (Bondage-Discipline Sado-Masochism) late at night, then a disturbing confrontation with a religious cult and finally another terrifying brush with captivity.
I havenít decided if Zan dilutes her plot with the added complications or gives it a contemporary edge. It is logical to assume that these four young women are not Jack Derberís only victims, given his lifetime fascination with torture and its limitations. But are survivors of such extreme conditions likely to engage in the activities That Sarah and the others do, given the extremity of their ordeal? Perhaps one monster at a time is sufficient, especially one as egregious and determined as Professor Derber. Whatever the case, Zan ratchets up the action in the last third of the book in a hair-raising series of eventsÖ Derber has never left his jail cell.