An uneven mystery about a murdered writer researching the suspicious death of her own mother.
When Gretchen Waters dies, it appears to be a tragic accident: She falls down steep library steps after a reading of her memoir Tammyland. Her best friend, Jamie, a ripely pregnant journalist, is asked to become Gretchen’s literary executor, which means she’ll be organizing the vast quantities of notebooks, audio recordings and computer files that were to be Gretchen’s next memoir. In this new memoir (Tammyland dealt with a divorce-inspired road trip merged with anecdotes of country music’s tragic divas), Gretchen was focusing on the sad circumstances of her own childhood. Shelly was a teenager when she became pregnant with Gretchen, so her older sister, Linda, and her husband raised the baby. Gretchen would visit her mother on the weekends, until one day, Shelly was found beaten to death. Shelly’s drunken boyfriend was acquitted, but everyone in the small New Hampshire town still thinks he did it. Jamie begins by simply organizing all the material, but when her house is broken into (the only things stolen are related to Gretchen) and it becomes clear that Gretchen’s death was not an accident, she becomes an unlikely detective, attempting to piece together the last days of Gretchen’s life. Arsenault builds the framework of a taut mystery—the present crime is directly related to the past—but the novel’s pace is frequently slowed by excerpts from Tammyland and, to a lesser extent, Gretchen’s field notes and rough drafts of the new memoir. Though Arsenault is playing with the idea of constructed realities, of multiple versions of truth, much is peripheral to the mystery and feels like a drag on the excitement being built as Jamie gets closer to the truth, and the murderer gets closer to Jamie.
Flawed but effective.