Stay With Me, by Alison Gaylin

Short Take:  A solid end to the Brenna Spector trilogy.

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If you haven’t read the first two books in the trilogy, you should probably do so before starting this one.

Previous reviews are here:

Book 1:  And She Was

Book 2:  Into The Dark

Brenna Spector is once again looking for a missing person in Stay With Me, the final book in the trilogy.  This time, instead of hunting for a client’s loved one, she is frantically trying to track down her own missing daughter, Maya.  Brenna’s flawless memory (hyperthymestic syndrome) both helps and hinders her, as the past keeps slamming into the present, and Maya’s chances dim with every passing moment.

As Brenna searches for Maya, she also finds answers to the biggest questions in her own life – the truth behind the disappearances of her father and older sister, Clea.  Along for the ride are her muscle-head computer-savant assistant, Trent, her ex-husband Jim and his devoted wife Faith, her boyfriend, Detective Nick Marasco, and her mother, Evelyn.

It’s going to be very hard to review this book without giving away any major spoilers, because the revelations are plentiful in this one.

The big final reveal is a little more telegraphed this time, but there are still enough other twists to keep it interesting.  We finally learn why Brenna’s father really vanished.  And although the clues were there, in both of the previous books, I never put it together.  (Side Note:  Can I just say how impressed I am with Ms. Gaylin’s continuity?  She seems to have known where she was going from the beginning, and so many of the minor details from the earlier books have all come together perfectly.  EXTREMELY well done!)

This is a short book that has a lot of pages.  I think that sense of “short book” is due to the many flashbacks – a small amount of forward momentum plot-wise is expanded to show what happened when Brenna saw/heard something similar on (random date) when (some other person) was wearing (items of clothing) and so on.  The ending felt entirely too rushed.  There was so much build-up, and then it all ended in just a few pages, and in a way that didn’t completely hang together for me.  The kidnapper suddenly does a complete one-eighty, with very little explanation, and then everything is just over.

Other than the strange, abrupt ending, there was a lot to like in Stay With Me.  I mentioned before the continuity that seems damn near flawless.  I don’t think authors get enough credit for pulling off a trick like that, as we tend to only notice the times that the details don’t match up.

There are some fascinating themes in this book.  One of the biggest is, “you can’t change who you are.”  That’s a line that’s repeated over and over, throughout all three of the Brenna Spector novels.  Eventually, no matter how much you want to keep a secret hidden, it will come out. Our own words and habits always reveal us.

Also, perfect memory doesn’t equal perfect vision.  Brenna may be able to recall exactly everything that everyone has ever said to her, but at the same time, she doesn’t see the people themselves clearly.  Instead, she tries to change the outward characteristics of the people around her, while ignoring their reality.  She complains about way Maya texts, but has no idea that Maya has a completely secret, destructive, other life.  Brenna can’t stand Trent’s habit of creating goofy nicknames for her, but she doesn’t see that he’s really putting away childish things when it matters.  She wants her mother to be someone else entirely, not realizing that Evelyn has carefully chosen the life she has, and for very good reasons.  Finally, she needs Jim to stay forever preserved in a little box in her memory, no longer a real person at all, despite how badly Maya needs her parents to be able to work together.

It’s an interesting idea – that even the most perfectly-recalled image of a person can have nothing to do with the actual person.  Is it better to live with incomplete and untrue memories that are happy, or to find the truth that may be quite a bit uglier?  Are we sometimes better off letting people go, even if we don’t want to, or hanging on to someone even when it’s hard?

In her need to avoid the discomfort that seeing her ex Jim brings, Brenna also throws away all the good things about him, and in her single-minded search for Clea, she has never faced the idea that the sister she remembers might not be anything like the person Clea really was.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable ending to the Brenna Spector trilogy.  There’s lots of food for thought, and some excellent literary tricks.  I just wish the ending had been as fleshed-out as the flashbacks.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS

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And She Was, by Alison Gaylin

Short Take: “The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings.”  Yes, it’s an Adam Duritz quote.  Sue me.

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Imagine being able to remember every moment of your life.  Sounds kind of great, doesn’t it?  I mean, you’d always know where you left your keys, never lose a phone number or important password, and totally kill it at Trivia Night.

But what if it wasn’t that great?  For Brenna Spector, her amazing recall abilities are a double-edged sword.  Brenna can look at a book, and remember where she last saw the book, describe the table it was sitting on, recall the conversation she had with the owner word-for-word, tell you the pattern of the tie he was wearing, and so on, years after the fact.  But when she’s having a memory, her whole consciousness is submerged in the past, and she relives the moment completely.  Hyperthymestic syndrome is, as the author writes “perfect autobiographical memory—the ability to call up any date of one’s life and remember it, in full, with all five senses.”

It’s fully immersive, almost like a trance, and she can’t always shut it down.  As her daughter says, “In order to get your full attention, you have to be something that happened in the past.”

Brenna’s sister Clea disappeared when she was 15 and Brenna was 11.  We aren’t given much information beyond that, but that’s when Brenna’s condition manifested itself.  It’s this double-punch of her sister’s disappearance and suddenly having hyperthymestic syndrome that eventually leads Brenna into work as a private investigator.  When we meet her, she’s divorced with a 13 year old daughter, running her own agency where she and her assistant Trent specialize in cheating spouses and missing persons.

Eleven years before the start of this book, a six-year-old girl named Iris Neff has disappeared, and in the present day, her neighbor Carol Wentz has become obsessed with the case, going so far as to impersonate Iris’s mother online in the search for answers.  Then Carol disappears, and her husband, Nelson, hires Brenna to find her.  As Brenna gets closer to the truth, the body count rises, and Brenna’s own life is endangered.  Although I’ve read hundreds of mysteries in my life, this is one of the times the ending caught me completely off-guard.  But the twist didn’t feel out of place – the clues were there, and referenced throughout the book.

This was a tight, complex mystery novel. Other than the irrelevant details that would flood Brenna’s mind at the slightest provocation, there are no wasted bits of information.  A few red herrings, and some seeming dead ends, but the final act ties it all together in a lovely, messy, all-too-human bow.

And She Was hits high notes on a few levels.  The main characters, Brenna and Detective Nick Marasco, are well-drawn and realistic.  Even the secondary characters have their own quirks and tics, like a fondness for meditation, or French cooking.  The dialogue is snappy and fun without being self-consciously clever.

There’s quite a bit of comic relief, in the form of Trent: Brenna’s assistant, Jersey Shore wannabe, and computer genius.  I have to say, as funny as Trent was, the character was the one glaring flaw.  When did it become A Thing for the guy who looks like an idiot/girl who looks like a bimbo to have savant-like skills when it’s needed?  I feel like I’ve seen this trope a lot in books and movies, and the idiot/genius character is the modern-day fairy godmother.  “Hey, you need something?  Sure, here it is.  Don’t ask how, I just have magical powers or something, ok?”  Even when it’s done well, it feels a little like cheating.

Ms. Gaylin shines with her descriptive language: “the headachy taste of the white wine she was drinking”   “Nelson’s father, full of Glenfiddich with a red face and meaty fists and a voice like a bomb exploding . . .”  With a few well-chosen words, she conveys a complete experience.

There’s a recurring theme of the nature of memory – how some events make an indelible impression and others that are momentous slip away if you don’t grasp their significance.  For us, there is a seeming clean line between the past and the present.  For Brenna that edge is a lot softer,  but in a way, aren’t we all like that?  Everything we perceive is affected by our past, whether it’s perfectly preserved in technicolor or a vague impression that we don’t even register.

And She Was also delves into the theme of isolation, and how we connect to each other.    As the author states repeatedly, “everyone has that one person.”  We may have hundreds or thousands of people in our lives on a regular basis, but who do we really trust and confide in?  That idea plays well in the potential Brenna/Nick romance, which never goes further than some light flirting, a touch on the cheek and “glad you’re ok” sentiment.  They are both damaged people, and it’s realistic for deeper feelings to barely be acknowledged early on.

And that ending.  Well played, Ms. Gaylin, well played.  I’m heading for the next book in the series right now.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS

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Currently reading/next review: Into the Dark, by Alison Gaylin.