Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

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Lisa Jewell is the internationally bestselling author of 18 novels, including the New York Times bestsellers I Found You, The Girls in the Garden and The House We Grew Up In. Her novels have sold more than two million copies across the English-speaking world and her work has been translated into sixteen languages so far. Jewell lives in London with her husband and their two daughters.

It’s every mother’s nightmare. A child is missing with no clues, no leads and no reason. When golden girl Ellie Mack disappears before her school exams, the police think she has run away. Her loving mother, Laurel Mack, cannot believe it. Life can change in the blink of an eye and no one is better at telling just how it can happen than bestselling author Lisa Jewell. With her latest novel, Then She Was Gone, this storyteller embellishes on family dynamics after a tragedy. Using realistic characters and haunting prose, she enmeshes the reader in the lives of the troubled Mack family members. The setting is present day London, but anyone who has ever read the newspaper knows this scenario is not unique to Britain.

From the beguiling prologue, Jewell’s poignant, pithy dialogue catches the reader’s attention. “Youth. Life. Ellie Mack. All gone. All gone forever. If she could rewind the timeline, untwist it and roll it back the other way like a ball of wool, she’d see the knots in the yarn, the warning signs. Looking at it backward it was obvious all along. But back then, when she knew nothing about anything, she had not seen it coming. She had walked straight into it with her eyes open.”

In this compelling novel, which is as much a suspense thriller as it is a commentary about relationships, Laurel Mack is the protagonist, a mother haunted by the sudden disappearance of her 15-year-old intelligent, beautiful daughter. One day, after receiving a B+ in math, Ellie begs her mother for a tutor. And Laurel obliges, securing a referral for Noelle Donnelly, a middle-aged, red-haired Irish spinster, who laps up the happy home life of the Mack family. But all is not as it appears in London suburbia. The moodiness, the sadness behind Noelle’s lonely existence are evident as she unloads to her young student about “going home to nothing” despite her prestigious university pedigree and math accolades. Ellie, freaked out by Noelle’s ever-increasing depressing comments, convinces her mother to cancel tutoring. And so starts the chain of events that winds up with Ellie’s abrupt vanishing act.

The novel flows back and forth in time seamlessly. It is ten years later and Laurel’s relationship with her remaining children, Hanna and Jake, has deteriorated to the point that she cannot close the gaping hole in the family’s dynamic. Her marriage to perfect, patient Paul has dissolved, and she is alone. Paul has moved on while Laurel stagnates in life, tortured by the unresolved disappearance of Ellie. She is not close to Hanna, whose whole life is one big secret. She is distant from Jake, who lives with a new-age millennial named Blue. She goes through the motions even with her aging mother, a stroke victim living in a nursing home. She is divorced and displaced, having moved out of the family residence into a small apartment without any memories.

After the ten-year anniversary special of Ellie’s disappearance airs on television, the madness begins again. The police have found Ellie’s body and her backpack. A month after burying her daughter’s remains, Laurel meets handsome Floyd Dunn, a divorced father of two. As their flirtation develops into something more serious, she meets his nine-year old daughter, Poppy, whose resemblance to Ellie is striking. Casting aside her nagging doubts, she manages to enjoy her new-found romance. Laurel learns that Poppy’s mother vanished, leaving the then-toddler in Floyd’s care. As the novel unfolds, the mystery of Poppy’s mom and Floyd’s role in the whole sordid situation leaves Laurel anxious and fearful.

“For years, though, she’d stayed close to home, in case Ellie came back again. For years she’d sniff the air every time she returned home from her brief sojourns beyond her front door, looking for the smell of her lost daughter. It was during those years that she finally lost touch with her remaining children. She had nothing left to give them and they grew tired of waiting.” As an author and mother of two daughters, Jewell manages to capture the soul-wrenching pain and guilt that racks Laurel’s heart after the tragedy. Her expressive language and genuine dialogue breathe life into the characters. This novel leaves the reader agape with dread, privy to the descent into madness of ordinary people. People you might interact with in your own life, at work, at school, in the neighborhood, even in your own family. ■