Reconsidered: The Chuck Buhrman Murder was splashed in bold red letters across a fuzzy black-and-white picture of my father. It was the headshot he had used for work, the one where he looked less like an actual college professor and more like a caricature of one, with his tweed jacket, crooked eyeglasses, and thick black beard. The faint twinkle in his eyes threatened to undo me.
this book is split pretty evenly between “family drama” and “mystery novel.” on the plus side, it is a compulsively readable book, which sounds like the bare minimum of praise, but it’s meant to reflect how quickly i read it (two days is not super quick, but considering the time i have available for reading, it’s quicker than i’ve been getting through many books), and the fact that i wanted to keep picking it up, even when i had more pressing things on my to-do list. and it was enjoyable, one of those summertime page-turners that keeps the mind distracted and entertained and invested in how it’s all gonna play out. on the minus side, it doesn’t have the most nuanced characters of all time, and it’s one of those books whose enjoyment is a bit diminished in the aftermath period, when the dust has settled, the thrill of the hunt has passed, and the summer school assignment begins – the dissection of the book’s craft for review purposes.
quickplot review – josie borden is living an enviable life – she owns an apartment in brooklyn which she shares with her loving and supportive humanitarian boyfriend caleb, she works at a bookstore (which is enviable in theory), and she has spent years traveling the world in a carefree bohemian whirlwind. however, her rootlessness has, erm …roots in less-enviable circumstances – thirteen years earlier, when her name was josie buhrman and she lived in smalltown illinois, her beloved history professor father chuck was murdered in the family’s kitchen, a crime witnessed by her twin sister lanie, whose subsequent testimony landed a 17-year-old neighbor named warren cave in jail. chuck’s death caused their emotionally-fragile mother to break down completely, abandoning them with her sister amelia to join a cult in california. lanie became a burnout troublemaker while josie worked extra-hard to be the good kid, but after lanie betrayed her in the most egregious way, josie left town and cut all ties with her sister, changing her name and the story of her past so that even five years into her relationship with caleb, he thinks her parents both died in a car accident and that she is an only child.
enter poppy parnell. poppy is a former true crime blogger who aspires to greater heights and she begins an investigative, and very addictive, podcast looking into the buhrman case, at the request of warren’s mother. it becomes popular enough that josie hears fellow subway commuters discussing it, and – even more tellingly – her reclusive mother learns about it after fans invade the cult’s compound, and she hangs herself shortly thereafter, causing josie to reluctantly return to her hometown for the funeral, where she is forced to confront family, friends, and the past, as well as all the lies she told caleb.
this is all first-act foundation, so don’t come at me with spoiler pitchforks.
from there, the book splits into two intertwined strands: the truth of what happened the night of the murder and a family story of mental illness, lies, betrayal, the inescapable weight of blood, and whether it is more merciful to forgive or to set someone free to start over.
it’s a 3.5, rounded up – i’m willing to cut much slack with debuts, particularly with debuts that are bringing something unusual to the mix, which this one does in its structure – the narrative chunks are broken up by transcripts of a true crime podcast, and the reactions of listeners to the episodes on reddit threads. i never listened to serial, or any other podcast – i’m still unclear on how they work, but poppy’s is pretty horrifying – invasive, gossipy and unprofessional, and seeing its impact on a family who has endured so much trauma, and now treated to the blithe idiocy of its fans’ online commentary, is nauseating. which i mean in a good way, because this is the most interesting and original aspect of the book, and which puts me in a precarious position – being disgusted by these vultures who are treating a family tragedy as water-cooler entertainment while i am, myself, being entertained by a novel about a family tragedy makes me just as culpable as they are on the great wheel of voyeurism, although i am giving myself a pass because i’m not camping outside anyone’s house demanding they tell me their darkest secrets.
it’s a solid debut that you won’t regret reading, even if the characters are a little one-note, and i look forward to seeing what she does next.
when it rains, it pours… after not winning a goodreads giveaway for seven whole months, i have suddenly won two in two months! of course, it’s terrible timing, as i am completely swamped with books i have promised to read, but i so appreciate freebies that i will use my fastest reading-eyes to get to this one as soon as humanly possible.