Descent, by Tim Johnston

Short Take:  A novel about a missing girl, written almost completely about men.

Give your brain a snack!

This one got really great reviews, but it just didn’t do it for me.  

Caitlyn Courtland (ugh that name) and her younger brother Sean are on vacation with their parents, Grant and Angela, in the Rocky Mountains.  Sean accompanies her on a jog up the mountain path, but hours later, Sean is the only one to return.  From there, the story bounces around a bit, showing what happened to Caitlyn, but mostly about the effect her disappearance had on her family.

Correction:  mostly about the effect her disappearance had on her father and brother.  Her mother, Angela, spends most of the book out of sight in a mental hospital.  We get a few glimpses of Caitlyn’s experiences, and a chapter or two of Angela’s breakdown, but Descent is almost exclusively about the men.  Grant finds a place to stay in Colorado, waiting and searching for Caitlyn, and Sean travels all over the Southwest, growing up and getting into fights, punishing himself for not protecting his sister.

I can’t decide if I like that or not.  I mean, the whole “mother searching desperately for her missing daughter, getting heroic, etc.” thing has been done to death on Lifetime movies alone, never mind all the other books, movies, tv shows, and pretty much any other form of entertainment you can think of.  But on the other hand, it seems so wrong and unrealistic to me that a mother would just check out completely like that.

Something else that didn’t work for me, is that there are also a lot of wasted words around Grant and Angela’s marriage.  It’s been on the rocks for a while at the start of the book, and although it seems like they are reconnecting while on vacation, their geographical separation during the search for Caitlyn takes its toll.  Or rather, it appears to, since we don’t really get Angela’s point of view, and Grant’s is mostly just about Caitlyn and his life in Colorado.

I feel like the book would’ve benefitted from either more focus on the parents’ relationship, or less.  The story of a family crumbling under the weight of a tragedy can be compelling, and the story of a family persevering equally so, but the story of a family who has problems, who kinda-sorta work it out, but kinda-sorta don’t really, and mostly just don’t talk about their issues, not so much.

I feel like Tim Johnston made Descent almost entirely about Sean.  And to an extent, I can totally get behind that.  Although Caitlyn is the focus of the crime, the search, the sorrow and love, Sean is the one carrying the weight of what happened.  So many times, when we see the pictures of missing kids, we think of what might be happening to that poor child, or how their parents are holding up, but I don’t know how many of us ask ourselves what their siblings are going through.  

But in Sean, we get a frustrating and heartbreaking look at that exact situation.  We see him try to do the right thing, we see him screw up and suffer, and we see the toll it takes on him.  We see him age beyond his years, and we mourn the innocence he has lost.  There’s also an unspoken but fairly thoughtful meditation on the way society allows men and women to express grief – that women are allowed to break down, be hysterical, mourn completely, but men are expected to suck it up and take care of business.

So is it wrong of me to read this book, and see some really excellent character development, and say “Geez, we get it, it’s tough on the guys, but what about everyone else??”

I don’t know.  I don’t know if this is a case of a writer who’s unable or unwilling to stretch much beyond his own experiences and point of view, or my own biases as a reader.  In any case, I just didn’t love it the way I expected to.

The Nerd’s Rating:  Three Happy Neurons



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