Degani’s affable debut, a suspenseful novel about mothers and daughters, aims to be thrilling, socially relevant and heartwarming all at once.
Abbie Palmer feels unfulfilled. The married English professor with two children has never figured out what she wants from life. The heart of the problem lies in her unresolved issues with her mother, a movie starlet from Hollywood’s golden age,who committed suicide in the 1950s. When an African-American woman claiming to be Abbie’s half sister dies in a mysterious fire, Abbie and the dead woman’s daughter, Makenna, set out to learn the truth—not only about the fire, but also about the passions and pains of Abbie’s mother’s short life. This plot allows Degani to wade into some heady, race-related waters, including present-day hate crimes and past taboos regarding interracial relationships. However, she avoids diving too deep into these subjects, never swimming too far from the shore of her standard thriller plot. Although the book regularly reminds readers that Abbie and Makenna are in danger, the prose lacks gravitas, often relying on clichés (“My heart skips a beat”; “The past is past and maybe it should stay that way”) and overexplanations, which sometimes make the novel feel like a Nancy Drew mystery in which nothing much is at stake. The plotting also disappoints, as Abbie and Makenna have little trouble solving the mystery; each clue hides in plain sight, and the right person always shows up at the right time, making everything too easy for the amateur sleuths. It all leads to an ending that tries to be heartwarming but instead tips the scale into sappiness. That said, Abbie is a likable narrator, self-aware (“I’m a regular Kinsey Milhone from those alphabet mystery books”) and self-deprecating (“I’m ‘on leave’ from my husband to—do what? Find myself? Oh, God”). Also, in her portraits of mother-daughter relationships, Degani finds genuine weight, even if she sometimes struggles to bear it.
An unsatisfying thriller that nonetheless contains insights into familial wounds.