They had six femurs, ninety-nine vertebrae, three skulls and thirty fingernails. Six kneecaps, forty-eight carpal bones, and more than three million strands of blonde hair, all tinged alien-green by the chlorine in their pool which, up until the day they went missing, we’d swum in almost every single day that summer.
And yet all of these things vanished—just evaporated in the heat. Not a single sign was left for us.
“they” are three australian sisters; cordie, hannah, and ruth van apfel, who go missing one summer in 1992. “us” is the small community left rocked by the girls’ disappearance, most specifically tikka malloy and her sister laura, who were eleven and fourteen that summer; close friends and neighbors of the van apfel girls.
twenty years later, tikka is living in baltimore, still haunted by the unresolved questions surrounding the vanishing, still obsessed with this defining dramatic event of her childhood. returning to her hometown to visit her cancer-stricken sister, her memories of the time and events leading up to the girls’ disappearance resurface, mixing with laura’s own corroborations and contradictions, picking apart what she knew, what she suspected, what she witnessed but couldn’t fully understand or interpret as a child.
it’s both a coming-of-age story and a work of suburban suspense; one where the past is unpacked, examined, and relived. the writing style is vivid and immediate, but the scenes, through tikka’s eyes, have a gauzy, hazy quality to them that has as much to do with the porousness of memory as it does with that summer’s heat wave.
i became completely engrossed in it, i loved the structure, i responded very favorably both to the characters and the fully-realized atmosphere made up of small-town gossip, ambiguity, and adolescent-girl secrecy; a cocktail that anyone who enjoys the work of megan abbott will appreciate.
as a related aside, i am someone who often scoffs at dust jacket readalikes and how frequently off-target they are; name-dropping best-sellers with little actual relevance to the book’s beating heart to lure unwary consumers. some of my scoffing is tinged with jealousy, since i yearn to be the queen of readers’ advisory in charge of all readalike declarations, but in this case? The Virgin Suicides meets Picnic at Hanging Rock is both a great hook and also great matches. and while it is true that i have only seen the film-version of Picnic at Hanging Rock (which may be why i am not yet the queen of readers’ advisory), the tone of this is exactly how i remember the tone of The Virgin Suicides being: at once detached and voyeuristic, chronicling the bravado and charisma and vulnerability and emotional weight of adolescent girlhood.
an impressive debut, and i’m looking forward to more from her in the future.