When her former student goes on a shooting spree at a mall in small-town Maine, a writing professor is faced with a moral challenge.
Maggie Daley is the rare academic who loves teaching freshman comp. “She prided herself on coaxing even the most passive among them to care about their writing. Write about what matters, she insisted. Anything else is a waste of time.” With that assignment, nearly three decades of students have poured out their hearts to her about their addictions, depression, grief, and eating disorders; it comes with the territory. Then one day, Nathan Dugan, whom she taught four years earlier, kills several people, including himself, at the local mall. The next day, one of Nathan’s classmates posts on Facebook a recollection that the shooter had written "a paper that was really weird." Maggie is asked to go back and find Dugan’s work in her files, and when she does, she makes the first of a series of very dubious decisions, ultimately involving both her daughter and her lover in the mess she creates. Maggie is not an easy character: plain, old-fashioned, and essentially friendless. Her husband left her because she’s emotionally cold and obsessed with her teaching; since then, she’s gone on to start an affair with a married colleague. Her only child, Anna, a second protagonist, suffers from extreme anxiety and anorexia, only barely controlled by medication and therapy. As this crisis hits, Anna is about to leave home for college, a difficult prospect for both mother and daughter. Unfortunately, both of these troubled characters start to lose their holds on the reader’s sympathy (mother) and interest (daughter). Inspired by the Virginia Tech shooting, Juska’s (The Blessings, 2014) story nests in a thicket of current issues: social media, gun violence, teenage anxiety and anorexia, and the responsibility of academics with regard to troubled students.
Well-written, realistic, and suspenseful to the point of dread.