Book: “Dear Amy” by Helen Callaghan
Publishing Info: Harper Paperbacks, October 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: As a thirty-something Classics and English literature teacher, working at a school in Cambridge, Margot Lewis leads a quiet life. In her spare time, she writes an advice column for the local newspaper. But she can’t help feeling that she’s the last person who should be doling out advice, because her marriage has failed.
When one of Margot’s students, fifteen-year-old Katie Browne, disappears, the police immediately suspect she’s been kidnapped. Then, not long after Katie goes missing, Margot receives a disturbing letter at the newspaper offices. The letter is supposedly from Bethan Avery, a fifteen-year-old girl who was abducted from the local area twenty years ago…and never found. In the letter, Bethan states that she is being held captive and is in terrible danger. The letter ends with a desperate plea for her rescue.
The police analyze the letter and find it matches a sample of Bethan’s handwriting which they’ve kept on file since her disappearance. This shocking development in an infamous cold case catches the attention of Martin Forrester, a criminologist who has been researching Bethan Avery’s puzzling disappearance all those years ago. Spurred on by her concern for both Katie and the mysterious Bethan, Margot sets out—with Martin’s help—to discover if the two cases are connected. But then Margot herself becomes a target…will she be next?
Riveting to the final page, this is a masterful, sophisticated, and electrifying debut.
Review: Oh Grit Lit, I wish I could quit you. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. When it’s good, it’s really quite entertaining, a genre that keeps me interested and on my toes. When it’s bad, well……
Given the pendulous possible outcomes, I definitely go in treading lightly, and try to keep my expectations low enough that I’m not terribly disappointed, but high enough that I don’t just give up on it. Sometimes this works. Other times it kind of just a was from the get go and I can see it from a mile away. And this is what happened with “Dear Amy” by Helen Callaghan. I found myself charging through it not so much because I wanted to know what was going to happen, but because I just wanted to get it over with. Which is never really a resounding cheer for a book. Now it wasn’t “Gone Girl” levels of hot boiling rage on my part, but I did have just a few too many qualms with it as a whole that left me less than enthused about it. So let’s just kind of unpack it, shall we? I think there are going to be spoilers here, guys. I need to talk about them to really show you why I’m irritated.
So first of all, Margot just punches every single Bingo square for stereotypical Grit Lit Heroine. She has been betrayed by her rat bastard husband (Eddy left her for another woman). She is outwardly pretty together as a teacher and advice columnist, but is afraid that if her dark past were to come out (heroin addiction being the worst part of it in her mind) everything would be ruined. And she is, of course, mentally unstable, with moments of questioning her sanity and the things that she is seeing in front of her. Old hat stuff, to be sure. But that’s not all. Oh no. Because in trope-y fashion, there of course has to be a huge twist, and this one was a doozy. Okay, here come the spoilers, folks. Get ready. Skip ahead if you really don’t want to be spoiled.
Margot is Bethan. Bethan is Margot. Margot has been in a dissociative fugue state all this time in regards to her trauma, and has been writing the letters to herself, as the Katie kidnapping set her off.
Okay, look, I like a good twist as much as the next person, but this one was a bit too ludicrous for me to swallow. I’m all for unreliable narrators, but when you have to work really hard to make them unreliable, going to ludicrous lengths to do it, that’s when I start to have a hard time with it. I think I actually said ‘what?’ when it was revealed, and then it felt like just a way to say ‘what is real and what is a lie?!’. Come off it. And given that this is the second thriller novel I’ve read in the past couple of months that has ‘dissociative fugue!’ as one of the ‘what a twist’ moments, it’s already starting to feel played out as well as totally random and unnecessary. That said, there is one more twist that I did like, involving Margot and a friend of hers named Angelique from when she was in a halfway house as a teenager. This was a plot point that I did enjoy, and while I saw it coming as well, it was still more believable than the huge Bethan Avery twist. Hell, had this twist I did like been the only curveball, I probably would have liked it more.
Overall I was more interested in the Katie parts of the book, but even they felt a bit out of place because while Margot’s were in the first person, we’d jump to Katie’s chapters in the third person just so we could see what was going on with her. I think that it may have worked better if she had been in the first person as well, just because the way that it jumped into a different perspective made it feel almost like a cheat instead of a literary device to tell both stories in a consistent and interesting way. If this book had been from Katie’s POV I probably would have liked it more, even if it would have had the potential to get a BIT exploitative.
So while I liked parts of this book, “Dear Amy” ultimately didn’t really do much for me. I think that Helen Callaghan definitely has writing skills, and I think that I could see myself giving her another shot, this one was a little too far on the Billy Eichner side of the pendulum.
Rating 5: “Dear Amy” had promise but then it fell into far too many familiar traps of the Grit Lit genre. Some parts were interesting, but overall it wasn’t my thing.
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