Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on After Her.
Maynard’s prologue offers incentive to follow where this novel, set in Northern California’s Marin County in 1979, may lead. Basing the tale on the true story of two sisters who grew up in the shadow of the notorious Trailside Killer serial murders near their home, the author reconstructs the landscape of the daughters of a handsome father, the detective on the case of the shocking killings. Two scant years apart, Rachel and Patty roam freely on the mountainside, Rachel just this side of puberty, yearning for the badge of womanhood as yet denied as she inches towards fourteen. In the prologue, Rachel has reason to rue the enthusiasm of her commitment to help her father solve the murder case, come face to face with the killer planning to make her his next victim.
From the perspective of thirty years and a successful writing career (a bit of a contrivance), Rachel describes that eventful summer of 1979. The chapters echo the words of The Knack’s “My Sharona” as well as sexual confusion, the sister-to-sister bond, a hyperactive imagination, terror, the loss of innocence, marital infidelity and the devastating effects of failure on a detective determined to find an elusive killer. Key to Rachel’s narrative is her unshakable relationship to her younger sister, Patty, as the girls face the dissolution of their parents’ marriage, infrequent visits by an adored father (especially as the case progresses), the depression of their mother and the uninhibited freedom that allows them to wander the mountain in spite of the warnings of danger.
There are many levels in the novel, most indelibly the bond between the sisters, their adoration of a detective-father whose love of women inspires chronic infidelity and the loss of his marriage, and the rampage of the “Sunset Strangler,” who eludes capture despite the authorities’ vigorous investigation. The killings become the background for every event, everything painted with the unfolding drama of dead young women. Intending to be a writer, Rachel’s imagination is stimulated by the real-life murders, her father’s inability to capture the killer inspiring accelerated efforts to help him with the case. Rachel has visions of the murder scenes and is urged by schoolmates to share details of the crimes. In an effort to fit in, Rachel temporarily abandons Patty, seduced by the popular crowd and a shallow boy who demands access to her yet-undeveloped body; “The fear that I would never become a woman. The terror that I would.” But the bonds of sisterhood are strong, Patty waiting for her sister when friendships prove false.
The handsome father figure, Anthony Torricelli, hovers over his beloved daughters even after breaking with his wife: a champion with feet of clay, as irresistible to the daughters as he is to other women, a tragic figure in the end when he cannot bring the monster to heel, the weight of his failure breaking a strong spirit. Through their father, his love and the inevitable disappointments of the separation, the girls learn what it means to love unconditionally, often called on to forgive, though Rachel’s reaction to his affection for another woman robs her father of his chance at happiness. It is the years after failure that give Rachel perspective, provide the impetus to find closure to a long and painful nightmare, as well as the discovery of another chapter yet to be lived.
In a confluence of murder, imagination, sexual awakening, sibling loyalty and family relationships, Maynard’s novel is part mystery, part love story, part coming-of-age diary and part narrative, but the interest sparked by the prologue is short-lived as the author doles out the details of Rachel’s growing pains. By the end, my ambivalence trumps curiosity and I feel somewhat duped by the implied promise of a confrontation with a killer that is anticlimactic at best. This is more a love story between sisters and between a father and his daughter than a thriller. The tedious voice and emotions of a pubescent girl are perhaps more appropriate to a younger audience, Rachel’s reluctant maturity embraced far past my endurance.