A teenager finds her beliefs about her problematic uncle severely challenged.
In Willms’ debut novel, a young woman opens the narration by telling readers about a simpler time in her childhood, “when I still believed in happy endings and dared to dream.” Felicia Francine Harrison—a tomboy who took immediately to the nickname Freddy, much to her mother’s dismay—lives the fairly normal life of a small-town kid, with her siblings Angie and Harry, her laid-back father, and her graceful, demanding mother. “I strove to be the over-achiever that mom always wanted,” Freddy relates, “but whenever I tried it inevitably resulted in an even worse embarrassment to my mother than ever before.” These relationships endure an added strain when the family takes in Freddy’s Uncle Joey, a developmentally handicapped young man with whom she forms a close bond. Joey is a sweet, simple-minded soul whose gentle, friendly nature impresses Freddy from an early age (“Every creature Joey touches, he touches with loving tenderness,” she tells readers). As the two grow up, Freddy loses her virginity to her high school boyfriend Erik and begins to envision a future with him, but just as those dreams come crashing down around her, further tragedy strikes. Joey is implicated in the death of a neighborhood girl with whom he’d displayed an innocent obsession. The girl’s father had warned him about coming anywhere near her, and when she turns up dead in the greenhouse owned by Freddy’s father, Joey automatically becomes the prime suspect. A scandal and an investigation promptly unfold, and the author handles the steadily increasing complexity of the plot with a far more practiced hand than might be expected in a first novel. The suspicions about Joey unnerve Freddy and she vainly tries to convince the police of his innocence (“Joey isn’t very smart, I’ll admit, but he would never hurt anybody”). The main characters and supporting cast are drawn with economy and a clear sense of the evolving relationships, including between Freddy and her parents. Freddy’s mother starts to worry about her daughter’s future: “I’m afraid with her always feeling responsible for Joey, there won’t be room in her life for anything or anybody else.” Willms orchestrates the mounting tension of the book’s final act with smooth assurance.
A taut and involving small-town tale of murder and loyalty from a promising new author.