The residents of a small Kentucky town react to the disappearance of a local woman in this first novel by short story writer Jones (Girl Trouble, 2009).
Emily Houchens, a lonely, deeply unhappy 13-year-old, finds a woman’s dead body while walking in the woods near the working-class subdivision where her family lives. She decides not to tell anyone. Instead, she continues to visit the body, fantasizing that she is sharing her adventure with Christopher Shelton, a popular boy who was kind to her in the past but has turned cruel because her obvious crush makes him uncomfortable. At the same time, Susanna Mitchell, Emily’s competent but insecure English teacher who has been defensively intimidated by Christopher’s highly educated mother, becomes increasingly concerned that she hasn’t heard from her hard-drinking, slightly disreputable older sister Ronnie for longer than usual. Her husband, Dale, a high school band coach who never approved of Ronnie, pooh-poohs her concern, but when Susanna stops by Ronnie’s apartment, she finds worrisome evidence that Ronnie’s sudden departure was not planned. The police detective assigned to Ronnie’s case is Tony Joyce, an old classmate of Susanna’s; she had a crush on him in high school (not unlike Emily’s on Christopher) but was afraid to date him since he was black. As distraught as she is about Ronnie’s disappearance, Susanna is also excited to work on the case with Tony, whose reappearance in her life underlines her dissatisfaction with her marriage to Dale. Yet Dale, who genuinely loves Susanna and their 4-year-old daughter, proves more self-aware than Susanna. Meanwhile, Emily’s father takes in his co-worker Wyatt’s dog after Wyatt suffers a heart attack, the culmination of the humiliation he experienced in a bar the night Ronnie went missing. And then there is Ronnie’s own humiliation that night.
There’s not much suspense about the possible crime, but Jones builds intense tension surrounding the choices her flawed but compellingly sympathetic characters make as they fight against lonely isolation within the tight confines of small-town America.