Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The One I Left Behind

The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon
HarperCollins, 2012
eBook,  422 pages

The summer of 1985 changes Reggie’s life. An awkward thirteen-year-old, she finds herself mixed up with the school outcasts. That same summer, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, displays their bodies around town. Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand is found on the steps. But after five days, there’s no body and Neptune disappears.
Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie is a successful architect who has left her hometown and the horrific memories of that summer behind. But when she gets a call revealing that her mother has been found alive, Reggie must confront the ghosts of her past and find Neptune before he kills again.

My Thoughts:

"It seemed the cruelest thing a person could do—to invent hope where there was none." (Location 5832-5833)

In The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon, Reggie Dufrane is a cutting edge green architect, but back in 1985 her only friends, Charlie and Tara, were two other social outcasts in Brighton Falls, Connecticut. 1985 was the year her mother, Vera, was abducted by the serial killer called "Neptune." Neptune would kidnap the woman and then leave her severed right hand in a milk carton on the steps of the police department. Five days later the woman's body would be discovered, nude, in some public place. Vera's hand was left by the killer, but her body was never found. Reggie grew up living with her aunt Lorraine, and left Brighton Falls right after high school, never returning.

Chapters alternate between Reggie Dufrane in 1985, at age 13, and in 2010, 25 years later.

Reggie's relationship with her mother was complex and Reggie may not remember everything exactly as it was. Her "earliest memory of her mother began with her mother balancing an egg on its end and ended with Reggie losing her left ear. (Location 318-319) Vera was likely an alcoholic, but most certainly she wasn't able to provide a stable home for her daughter without living at the family home with her sister. Reggie feels alienated and unloved, which is part of being 13, but certainly losing her mother at such a vulnerable time further influenced her development.

Reggie "didn’t believe in clutter or in holding on to things that didn’t have significant meaning, so her bookcase held only the books that she referred to again and again, the ones that had influenced her: The Poetics of Space, A Pattern Language, The Timeless Way of Building, Design with Nature, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, as well as a small collection of nature guides. Tucked here and there among the books were Reggie’s other great source of inspiration: bird nests, shells, pinecones, interestingly shaped stones, a round paper wasp nest, milkweed pods, acorns, and beechnuts." (Location 260-265)

"Reggie had always been a quiet kid, even with her own family, and part of the reason for this was that she never knew the right thing to say. Words didn’t come easily to her, they were stumbling blocks rather than lines of connection. And only later, after the fact, when she was replaying conversations in her head late at night, did the right words come—a cruel joke, too little, too late." (Location 1923-1926)

Reggie had been getting phone calls for years that she attributed to Neptune.
She’d been getting the calls for years, first at home, then college, then in every apartment and house she’d ever lived in. He never said a word. But she could hear him breathing, could almost feel the puffs of fetid moisture touch her good ear as he inhaled, then exhaled, each breath mocking her, saying, I know how to find you. And somehow, she knew, she just knew, that it was Neptune. And one of these days, he might actually open his mouth and speak. She let herself imagine it: his voice rushing through the phone like water, washing over her, through her. Maybe he’d tell her the one thing she’d always wanted to know: what he’d done with her mother, why she was the only victim whose body was never found. The others had been displayed so publicly, but all they ever found of Vera was her right hand. (Location 270-276)

In spite of the harassing calls, Reggie is thriving in her present day orderly life until she receives a phone call in 2010. Her mother, Vera, has been found alive in Massachusetts. She's been in a homeless shelter for the past couple of years under an assumed name, but now she is dying and she has finally admitted her real name.

“No, Regina. It seems they’ve found your mother. Alive.” Reggie spat out the coffee, dropped the cup onto the floor, watching it fall in slow motion, dark espresso splattering the sustainably harvested floorboards. It wasn’t possible. Her mother was dead. They all knew it. They’d had a memorial service twenty-five years ago. Reggie could still remember the hordes of reporters outside; the way the preacher smelled of booze; and how Lorraine’s voice shook when she read the Dickinson poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” (Location 291-296)

"Reggie wondered if she and her mother would even recognize each other. She tried to picture the stump where her mother’s right hand had been—the hand that had once tapped out the rhythm of every song on the radio; the hand that held hers ice-skating on Ricker’s Pond. Reggie pushed her hair back, fingers finding the small crescent moon of scars behind her prosthetic ear. Maybe, she thought, feeling her own scar tissue, they’d know each other by what was missing." (Location 599-604)

Reggie finally returns to Brighton Falls after her 25 year absence, but her attempts to discover Neptune's identity are amounting to nothing, since Vera seems mentally incapable of remembering anything. Vera and Reggie's return also heralds the more sinister return of Neptune.

The One I Left Behind is a complex novel with the kind of phenomenal character development that helps drive the plot and allows suspense to build gradually as the events in 1985 and 2010 are played out in the alternating chapters. I was doubly impressed with the plot and the character development. McMahon does an exemplary job of keeping the action and tension building while exhibiting an astute ability to capture the voice of Reggie at both 13 and 38 in a believable way. Clues to Neptune's identity are slowly revealed, moving the plot forward as the darker aspects of all the personalities involved are also exposed.

Very Highly Recommended

After very highly recommending Jennifer McMahon's Don't Breathe a Word, and now The One I Left Behind, I believe McMahon has just elevated herself into the position of an author I will endeavor to always read.   


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