5 stars out of 5
More than anything else, I think, this is a character study; what I know is that it was riveting to watch the threads that hold together three close-knit characters - a father, a mother and a teenage daughter - begin to twist, unravel and, depending on what you read into it, come together again.
The story begins about a year after the disappearance of Billie Flanagan, who went for a solo hike in a California wilderness area and never came back. She left behind a loving, trusting husband, Jonathan, and their teenage daughter, Olive; because her body never turned up, their lives have been turned upside down. On one hand, they hold out the hope that she'll turn up - apparently, she's always been a bit of a "hippie" who disappears for a day or two on a whim. On the other, they want the whole thing to be over. Jonathan and his attorney have petitioned the court to declare Billie legally dead - partly to bring some measure of closure and partly so Jonathan can collect the somewhat hefty life insurance settlement. He quit a high-stress job to concentrate on writing, and he's already behind in tuition payments to his daughter's pricey all-girl private school.
He's also run through the advance he got from a publisher for rights to his as-yet-unfinished book detailing life with the offbeat (to say the least) Billie. This book is interspersed with bits and pieces of what he's written that reflect not only his feelings for her and their life together, but how those feelings evolve as new information comes to light.
Suddenly, for instance, Olive begins to "see" visions of her mother, who passes on cryptic messages that convince the girl that her mother is still alive. Jonathan, needless to say, thinks Olive is heading off the deep end - especially since the visions are interfering with her schoolwork and relationship with him. Still, his curiosity is piqued enough that he sets out to look for other clues as to what really happened (including digging into files hidden in Billie's laptop). As the story progresses, he learns - much to his dismay - that Billie has lied to him and Olive. But the question is, were those lies simply omissions of a past events that are too painful for Billie to share or to cover up a more insidious life that came before her husband and daughter?
Helping to console him is next-door neighbor Harmony, a caterer who was Billie's best friend. That complicates the situation by eliciting quite different emotions from Jonathan, who leans toward going with the flow, and Olive, who (quite understandably) resents the intrusion. Adding to her angst is that she's just beginning to come to terms with her own sexuality as awareness of what her mother really was about begins, for better or worse, to grow.
"Who you want people to be makes you blind to who they really are" is a tagline in the book's official description - and it's right on target. This is a don't-miss book that grabbed and held my attention from the start, and I heartily thank the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for a review.
Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown (Spiegel & Grau, July 2017); 368 pp.