Going into Nova Ren Suma’s 17 & Gone, all I knew—beyond the basic premise, which sounded to me like Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-U series as imagined by Lisa McMann—was that it had been enjoying a decent of buzz. Buzz, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily mean one thing or another: It can be born of genuine enthusiasm, but it can also be created by publicists. (For the former, see Grave Mercy; for the latter, the Theodore Boone series.)
The story begins with a missing person poster. Seventeen-year-old Lauren Woodman reads it, sees Abby Sinclair’s face, her description and her last known whereabouts, and suddenly, anywhere and everywhere she goes, she sees a girl who’s been missing for months: a girl who no one is looking for, a girl who no one seems to care about.
It’s not just Abby. After Abby, Lauren starts seeing other missing girls: not just seeing them, but talking with them, living their memories, dreaming about them. Each girl left home—some by choice, some not—at age 17, and each girl has yet to return. Lauren instinctually knows that, while there’s nothing that can be done to save the others, Abby’s different. Abby is still out there somewhere: alive, though not well. But even as Lauren doggedly works to follow Abby’s long-cold trail, she knows that she herself is somehow just as doomed as the others.
Suma didn’t win me over in her first few chapters—at first, descriptions like “her long hair woven with brambles, with sticks and leaves and other indecipherable things gummed up and glimmering through the glass” felt more self-consciously literary than lush, lyrical and poetic—but then, either she found her groove or I found my way into her rhythm. Regardless, something clicked, and suddenly everything about the book worked for me: character, voice, storyline and, yes, prose.
In terms of character, it’s Lauren who’s front-and-center, not only since she’s the protagonist, but also since her voice is so distinctive. The secondary characters, though—especially her boyfriend, Jamie, and her mother—are extremely well-drawn as well, in that even though our narrator is distracted and stand-offish, their personalities and concerns are always clear. So much so that, at points, I found myself sympathizing more with them than with Lauren.
The unreliable nature of Lauren’s narration subtly creeps up over time. There is no specific statement or action that makes her state of mind definitively obvious, and even at the end, there are aspects of the story that readers will debate. After realizing that I couldn’t entirely trust her perception of reality, though, I spent the rest of the book on high-alert, desperately hoping that it wouldn’t have the tragic ending that Lauren both expects and dreads. Ultimately—before reaching the end, before getting any answers—I decided that even if Suma didn’t provide any concrete answers, that that wouldn’t matter. And I was right about that. Ultimately, it doesn’t: What matters is that, in addition to being a hell of a thriller, 17 & Gone is an elegy to all of the girls who are, or who ever have been, lost.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably mooning over Timothy Olyphant’s portrayal of Raylan Givens in Justified. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.