Author: Elizabeth Little
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Shelf: Realistic Fiction
Without context, even the feeblest hopes loom large and beguiling.
With its snapshot beginning, bitter and self-aware narrative, and inevitability hinted at often, Elizabeth Little‘s debut novel promised to be a dark, gritty debut mystery in the vein of Tana French or maybe Gillian Flynn. To me, however, it’s ended up being a good effort riddled with missed opportunities, though not without its merits.
Jane Jenkins was sixteen years old when she was convicted of her mother’s brutal murder. 83% of America believes her to be guilty yet after spending a decade in solitary she gets out on a technicality. Jane’s narrative is dominated by quick judgements on her part of other people, insights into a person’s mind that can come of spending either decades manipulating others while under the effects of the public eye, or a psychology degree from a top-notch(or really crappy) institution.
She was just thing enough to let you know she gave a shit, like she probably shaved her bush every once in a while, but she wasn’t so thin that she could be exacting about things like coming during sex. She was a lazy man’s woman. A rainy day in the dark kind of woman.
While it instantly(and surely) clears up any lingering ennui on the part of the reader, and although Jane Jenkins made her notorious debut when she was fifteen, I find it a little hard to accept such statements of a woman who spent only two years in the limelight, sharpening her talons when she was but in her mid-teens, and afterwards, spent her years with minimal interactions.
Jaded as life with her mother might have caused her to become, this level of certainty and perceptiveness I find hard to accept.
Beyond that, however, Jane’s self-aware yet narcissistic personality, along with her cultivated affectations and idiolect were easily traced back, and attributed to, her unusual upbringing. Often a time, she reverts back to speaking in far-fetched metaphors, or thinking in terms too histrionic* but always redeems herself by calling on it.
That said, what settled the 3-star rating for me was the decided lack of tension or atmosphere in the setting. Factoring out the main character, or maybe just her history, and Dear Daughter could make a cozy mystery with minimal to no humor. In fact, it’s the itty-bitty bits from Jane’s past that give it the little dark edge it has, until the last of revelations. On the other hand, it certainly was an all-nighter. I stayed awake till 5 am.
As a corollary to above, I must add that the buildup doesn’t pan out. We’re led to believe there’s this deep secret that might be surrounding Ardelle, looks exchanged and selfish deeds, which when revealed turns out to be agonizingly innocuous. Moreover, with the exception of the obvious because reasons and villains, the people of Ardelle turn out to be supremely helpful for no reason other than well, they’re NICE. That was a huge blow, considering all that we’d seen and derived of Jane’s mother from her actions as well as Jane’s memories, and Jane herself along with all the people she’d associated with before striking out on this quest of hers- they were twisted. And these were disappointingly nice.
Lastly, one of the things that is bugging me the most is Jane’s own lack of certainty as to whether she killed her mother. I do understand that ten years of incarceration put her in a fragile state but she wasn’t sure whether she was guilty from the beginning, or at least that’s how it was purported, IMO. It was never ascertained why.
I did like the conclusion of the story, open-ended in some areas. Neither was the book itself all that bad- Jane’s voice(despite my objections) was engrossing and there was never a hint of boredom throughout. The writing was captivating courtesy to/despite insights such as these:
You step into the elevator, of course. Because you don’t want to judge him unfairly just because he’s big or because he looks different or because he’s wearing a chain wallet. You overrule the animal inside you that’s screaming danger danger danger because you don’t want to feel bad. You talk yourself out of your animal instincts because you want to feel empowered, because you want to feel noble.
But truth: Never once when I’ve done this have I felt empowered. Never once have I felt noble. I’ve only ever felt lucky to still be there when the door opens again. Because you know who’s the only kind of who doesn’t feel bad? A dead one.
And yet, each and every time I step into that elevator. Otherwise I never would’ve come to Ardelle to begin with.
“average person makes 3 metaphors a year” factoid actually just statistical error. Augustus Georg, who has cancer & makes over 10,000 metaphors a day, is an outlier adn should not have been counted.
Thank you Random House UK and PENGUIN GROUP Viking!