Kimberly McCreight creates a riveting scenario in this novel. Deconstructing and reassembling a loving mother-daughter relationship, the author ramps up the suspense in one of the best thrillers I’ve read this year. A high-powered attorney at a salubrious downtown law office, Kate Baron is typical of most women in her position as she tries to juggle a stressful, demanding career with single motherhood.
Kate spends most of her waking hours courting the needs of Jeremy Firth, the head of litigation at the law offices of Slone and Thayer. She must
also attend to the needs of Amelia, her fifteen-year-old daughter who attends Grace Hall, a prestigious, upper-class Brooklyn high school. As the novel opens, Kate is leaving for work with an excess of unused adrenaline, ready for another demanding day at the office and wondering only briefly why the impending argument with Amelia never materializes.
Amelia leaves with a smile and a deceptively cheerful wave, her miraculous eyes--“one blue and one hazel glinting in the warm morning light.” It’s just another normal day, until Kate gets a phone call from Grace Hall telling her there’s been an incident. Amelia--caught cheating on an English paper--has apparently been suspended. Amelia has never been in trouble: she’s bright, creative, thoughtful and focused. Kate knows the allegations are absurd, yet the incident forces her to acknowledge that of late her daughter seems distracted, even a little moody. She’s also been plying her mother with questions about her
father and pleading to spend the next semester in Paris.
Kate herself is deeply scarred by her discovery in 1997 that she was pregnant, unable to fully grasp the travails of being
a twenty-four-year-old single mother while still attending law school. Told that Amelia has fallen from the roof in what was most likely suicide, Kate--like in those difficult
early years--is forced to once again shoulder the burden of loss. For the first time, she wonders whether she ever really knew her daughter. In an internal conflict that
grows increasingly devastating, Kate faces a choice between her own mother‘s pleas to go on the “straight and narrow” and the pressure of finding out what really happened in the last hours of Amelia’s short life.
Beginning with a sinister text message--“Amelia didn’t jump”--McCreight unfolds
an unnervingly provocative tales, gradually seducing the reader with the implied horrors of schoolyard bullying and hazing cloaked in a veil of secrecy, and a hint that beneath the tragedy of a young, gorgeous girl are secrets and lies too monstrous to be acknowledged. In the wake of the accident, Kate folds in on herself and around her grief, accepting without explanation the reason for Amelia’s death, a reason she
nonetheless never fully believes.
Conflicted over the realities of the calamity, Kate retreats into the solace of her brownstone, her loss bringing on an icy chill of recognition, guilt and despair, forcing her to recognize that she has been too distracted by her own ambition. When kindly Lieutenant Thompson offers to help Kate look into the case, layer upon layer of troubling revelations unfold centering on Amelia’s emails, texts and Facebook page.
These lead Kate to Phillip Woodhouse, the handsome headmaster of Grace Hall; to Ben, who told Amelia he was gay soon after they started texting; and to Sylvia, Amelia’s best friend, who made a pact with Amelia never to join the school sorority, the Maggies, a viper's nest of cruelty and gossip.
Early on, I thought McCreight would start telegraphing her plot and turn the story into yet another predictable tale where the fate of the main character is revealed halfway through. My blunder. Regardless of what conclusions Kate accepts involving the school board and their influential lawyers who give Grace Hall strict instructions to turn a blind eye to the Maggies and the notorious school gossip blog, Kate refuses to compromise, finally managing to break though this vast web of deception.
The feminist message is clear, as well as Kate facing Amelia’s true nature even when she’s left hurt, shaken, and absolutely devastated, mostly
by the stunning realization that in the end, she lacked any sort of motherly intuition.