Jennifer McMahon crafts powerful suspense, and THE ONE I LEFT BEHIND is her sixth novel. It's terrifying. And unforgettable. And absolutely worth reading.
With taut pacing, and all too believably, McMahon takes us into the complicated and painful results of small, devastating decisions that force their way into the next generation. Today's TV series that feature serial murders, real or not, and the many true-crime books and volumes of "based-on-the-truth" crime fiction have taught us all: The nastiest crimes come from people who've grown up twisted, often as a result of terrible abuse in childhood. But sometimes the serial killer doesn't seem to have those childhood roots of trauma; instead, a small vulnerability exists, and an adult decision or event triggers a violent pattern.
For Reggie Dufrane, daughter of one of the most beautiful -- and flirtatious -- women in Brighton, Connecticut, childhood meant being fussed over by aunt, watching her mother perform the role of "I was a famous model," and savoring a close (too close?) friendship with Tara, whose games always involve risk and sacrifice. "Imagine that your house is on fire," Tara challenges -- "you have exactly one minute to grab what you can. What do you choose?"
We meet Reggie in Vermont, though, in 2010 -- long after the 1976 events that turned her into an orphan and placed her with her increasingly odd aunt Louise. She's an architect with a following, and a gift for bringing the outside in, something that echoes the old treehouse where she and Tara and a boy, Charlie, bonded in those early years.
And oddly, she still wears around her neck the tiny hourglass filled with pink sand that Tara used to turn, to time those long-ago dares.
In many other ways, the past hasn't let go of Reggie. Though she lives in a sparsely furnished, elegant home that reflects her design passions, she is also somehow bound to the series of unsolved "slayings" that took place in Brighton Falls, and the reporter who turned the news into a "true crime" book called Neptune's Hands, Martha Paquette. This reporter is the first of McMahon's characters that shows her dark side, and her insistence on dragging Reggie into the crimes suggests she's against Reggie all the time. I was ready to slap her, myself -- that's how quickly McMahon's multilevel psychological thriller took me onto Reggie's side, ready to defend her against any more pain.
But the reporter's short excerpts also give us a resonant level at which to feel the results of what's happened to Reggie, then and now. Here's one of the supposed excerpts from that "true crime" report:
"I think, in so many ways, that before the murders we were living in an age of innocence," says Reverend Higgins of the Brighton Falls First Congregational Church. "We thought nothing bad could happen here. Neptune took something from us, beyond the lives of those poor women. He took away our safety and showed us the true face of evil. It's hard to imagine going back to the way things were before. I don't think Brighton Falls, or any of its residents, will ever be the same."As Reggie staggers under the weight of that evil, and its resurgence -- for the kidnappings and hand amputations and killings in her hometown seem to have resumed -- she's entangled in the unresolved relationships, events, and connections from a generation earlier. Can she escape another round of violence? Can she protect the people she loves?
And most pressing, McMahon forces us to wonder: Can our innocence ever be reclaimed?
One caution, and it comes up with all of McMahon's books for me: The covers of her suspense novels feature young women's faces, often from childhood or the teen years, and THE ONE I LEFT BEHIND (like Promise Not to Tell and Don't Breathe a Word) looks almost like a young adult novel. (See the Kingdom Books review of Island of the Lost Girls for this aspect, too.) If there's a young adult in your life who's already handling Stephen King, then McMahon's frightening twists can create an atmospheric and compelling read for that teen. But if you know teens who are still innocent, keep this book for yourself instead. Adult readers know something about evil -- and how to seek redemption.