This novel is the prose equivalent of the stereotypical horror movie – you know, the one where the scantily-clad girl keeps going back in the creepy mansion where all the screams and chainsaw noises are coming from. The first half of this novel (which is better than the second half) establishes the protagonist, Sarah, as a kidnapping/torture survivor who is so deeply traumatized by her three years in captivity that she lives as a near-recluse. She is an actuary for an insurance company, a career that allows her to work from home and that makes use of her obsession with the statistics of danger, an obsession that began even before she was abducted. She lives in a New York City apartment where the doorman accepts packages and other deliveries for her and turns unwanted callers away. Her psychiatrist pays house calls; other than that, her only other visitors are her parents and an FBI agent named Jim McCordy, who is assigned to keep Sarah and the other victims of her kidnapper informed about the status of his case.
All of this makes perfect sense to me. Sarah’s living situation sounds pretty great to me, and I’ve never had a trauma anywhere near as severe as what Sarah experienced. I’ve had trips to the grocery store that have made me want to isolate myself from society in the way that Sarah does. Suspension of disbelief was not a problem for me while I was reading the first half of this book, though I imagine it is for some. So many of our cultural norms are directed at extroverts, and I got the sense that I was supposed to see Sarah’s closed-off world as a trauma in and of itself.
Eventually, Sarah leaves her ordered, controlled world – a departure that had to happen in order for this book to have a plot, of course, although it was when she left her apartment and started raiding BDSM clubs on dirt roads in the middle of forests in rural Oregon (yes, really!) that my willingness to suspend disbelief was tested. Here’s what happens: Jim the FBI agent arrives to deliver a letter to Sarah from her former kidnapper, who has been writing to her and to his other victims from his prison cell for a long time. Sarah always reads his letters – which are ambiguous and creepy – because she is convinced that Jack (that’s the kidnapper) is sending her clues that will lead her to the spot where he buried Jennifer, another one of his kidnap victims. Even though Jack’s letters upset her, Sarah always reads them because she is determined to put the clues together. On this visit, though, Jim the FBI agent tells Sarah that Jack will be up for parole soon. Jim wants to persuade Sarah to appear at his hearing. This conversation, which takes place in the second chapter of the novel, serves as the novel’s exposition – we learn about Tracy and Christine, the other two women who were kept prisoner with Sarah and Jennifer. Tracy is the founder and editor of a radical feminist academic journal, and Christine has become a Park Avenue trophy wife and mother who refuses to maintain any connections with her past. From Jim’s perspective, Sarah is a perfect witness to speak at the hearing because Tracy, as an outspoken crusader against violence toward women, will appear to have an axe to grind and because Christine will refuse even to take calls from the FBI. Sarah is important to the FBI because she looks and acts the most victimlike.
Sarah refuses to agree to speak at the hearing, but she does promise to think about it. When Jim leaves, she quickly goes back to mining Jack’s recent letter for clues, and – long story short – decides to go to Oregon to investigate some of the theories she has formulated based on Jack’s letters. As a result, the novel grows quickly ridiculous. All of a sudden, the traumatized reclusive actuary is flying cross country, renting cars, staying in hotels, and chatting up creepy strangers. She reunites with Tracy, who has in general been distant toward Sarah ever since they were rescued from Jack’s house; we learn that Tracy is angry with Sarah because of something that happened during their escape. She also connects with a woman named Adele Hinton, who was his research assistant during the years that Sarah and the others were held captive (Jack was a psychology professor at the University of Oregon) and who later replaced Jack in the psychology department after his arrest.
I’ll skip over most of the rest of the plot, but suffice it to say that Jack does not get out on parole, that Sarah and Tracy reunite with Christine, that a human trafficking ring is uncovered, and that a creepy preacher is involved, but that even the presence of the creepy preacher does not save the novel from mediocrity. Sarah and Tracy do briefly get kidnapped again, but they turn out fine. We learn why Tracy was mad at Sarah about the circumstances of their rescue, and Sarah does reunite with Jennifer, sort of. There’s some suspense, I guess, and I certainly did not mind picking the novel up each day, but there is also very little here that is out of the ordinary. This novel seems to come out of the same general image bank that produces Law and Order: SVU – which I enjoy sometimes, especially as the backdrop to a long day of knitting – but this also means that this novel is scaffolded by clichés. Every single last detail, from the by-the-book FBI agent and the uniformed doorman to the waitress in the small-town coffee shop and the BDSM couples to whom Adele introduces Sarah, might as well come from some public reservoir of stock characters. Even Jack, the psychology professor-turned serial kidnapper and rapist, is Hannibal Lecter viewed through a slightly modified lens. There is not a single element of this novel that seems to emerge from the unique worldview or imagination of its author. And that really is too bad.