Short Take: Not a great book, but still a really good book.
Chevy Stevens has a gift for writing books that blend the past with the present. I’ve read two of her other books (Still Missing and Never Knowing), and it’s no secret that she’s got a gift for twisting time periods together in a way that keeps you reading long after you should turn off the light.
That Night begins with 34 year old Toni being released from prison, where she and her high school boyfriend Ryan were sent for the murder of her younger sister, Nicole, fifteen years before. From there, it immediately jumps back in time to 1996, where we learn more about Ryan, Nicole, and Shauna, the “mean girl” who makes Toni’s final year of high school hell.
The book runs along two parallel timelines throughout – we see Toni’s high school life, and the events leading up to the night of Nicole’s death, and we follow the “after” part of her story, through 15 years of prison, her release and attempts to build a life on the outside while simultaneously exposing the truth about her sister’s murder. It’s not as easy as it seems. Ryan has also been released from prison. He’s the only one who might be able to help Toni find out the what really happened to Nicole, but as a condition of their parole, they are forbidden to contact each other in any way. One phone call or casual wave on the street could send them both back to prison.
Not to mention, the real killer is still out there.
That Night was one of those books that I really liked, but can’t put my finger on exactly why. I can’t say that it had a fast-moving plot. Some chapters felt a lot like unnecessary filler. I don’t want to give away too much, but an entire subplot revolving around a prison enemy could’ve probably been cut completely. Toni’s interactions with Ryan, post-prison, felt unrealistic and cliched. And the character of Shauna was almost like a caricature of the high school mean girl.
Despite the clunkiness of some of the writing, there’s more going on here, and it’s when Chevy Stevens takes hold of your emotions that the story hits the sweet spot. I couldn’t help but genuinely feel despair and helplessness as I read. I knew what was going to happen (Nicole’s murder), and all the way through, I wanted to change the outcome. So brutal, but so well done.
The relationship between Toni and her mother was one of the best-written, most heartbreaking ones I’ve read in a long time. They were both so human, so flawed, that it was impossible to not feel sympathy for both of them. And the note that the book ended on with them… powerful stuff. And incredibly realistic.
Speaking of Toni – I can’t imagine a more skillfully drawn young female character. She’s not clumsy or secretly gifted or incredibly gorgeous when she takes her glasses off or sharply cynical and witty beyond her years, or any of the other lazy shortcuts other writers take to establish a personality in girls. She’s hurting and defiant and her voice comes through loud and clear. She’s someone you instantly recognize, because either you were her, or your best friend was.
Nicole is more mysterious. She’s the perfect, obedient golden child that parents fantasize about, and that rebellious older sisters can’t stand. Her secrets are teased out a few at a time, until the very end, when we finally learn the real reason she was killed.
When the truth about Nicole’s murder is finally revealed, it’s half of a let-down. Maybe I’ve read too many mysteries, but the identity of the murderer wasn’t that surprising, despite a couple of red herrings. While the who wasn’t much of a shocker, the why certainly was. I’m not going to drop any hints here, but the killer’s motivation was definitely a “holy crap” moment for me.
So while I enjoyed That Night a whole lot, I don’t know that I would put it up there with Chevy Stevens’ best. If you’re already a fan of her work, you’ll breeze right through it, if you haven’t read anything by her, maybe start with something else.
The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS