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THE DEAD GIRL by Melanie Thernstrom



Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 1990
Publisher: Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster

Thernstrom, a young writing instructor at Cornell, offers an obsessive, self-absorbed, and at times moving account of the aftermath of the murder of her best friend. Roberta Lee and Thernstrom were kindred spirits, hyperliterate professors' daughters who, when they went off to college, wrote each other letters about angst and alienation. Roberta, also known as Bibi, attended Berkeley; one day Melanie got a phone call that Roberta had disappeared while jogging in the woods with her boyfriend Brad. A massive search effort was launched, and Melanie went to California to take part. After weeks, Roberta's body was found, and Brad confessed to the murder. Later, he recanted the confession, saying it was made under duress. Those are the facts. But what interests Thernstrom is a more impressionistic account of the heartbreak, a search for meaning that acknowledges the two friends' bleak shared universe. Life is loss and sadness, she postulates; sometimes being morbid is being right. The end of the story--Roberta's death--casts meaning on everything that went before it--retrospectively, friendship with Roberta was all about departure. Thernstrom scrapes deep, probing her every mood for years following Roberta's death. She does this in a collage of forms, quoting poems and letters, recounting memories, reproducing newspaper accounts. What gets shortchanged is context (background on the girls' childhoods, a few details of their college experiences would have added much) and narrative (the reader is left to patch together a lot of the chronology). Although a vastly gifted writer, Thernstrom does not acknowledge the necessity to tell a story in order to draw readers in. The barrage of her wisdom is powerful, but the emotional effects are few.