This is a novel of dichotomies, from glitzy LA and “celebutantes” (circa 2003) to a quiet, insular town in South Dakota (2013) and a protagonist who sheds the spotlight of infamy for the anonymity of a disguise as a dowdy, bookish tourist interested in the local history of Ardelle, South Dakota, and its sister city, Adeline. Sometimes the conceit of hidden identity works; often it doesn’t. Nevertheless, author Little’s loosely reigned-in character, convicted murderer—and celebrity—Janie Jenkins (aka Rebecca Parker) somehow manages to fool some of the people most of the time, which is critical in avoiding recognition on a journey to learn about her mother’s past. That there is a $50,000 reward for a valid sighting of Jenkins adds more pressure on Janie/Rebecca in a country rife with cell phones and a national addiction to Internet sites like TMZ.
Little devotes a lot of energy in the setup, getting the reader on board with a young woman’s determination to avoid the press and solve the mystery of her mother’s murder, a crime for which she was convicted in 2003, the conviction vacated in 2013 because of irregularities in the case. Unfortunately Janie, who was drunk, can’t remember much about the night she discovered her mother, Marion Elsinger, in a pool of blood. Regardless of the mistakes made by the crime lab, the onus of the murder conviction hangs over Janie’s head, the baying press anxious for more details to keep the rumors flowing. When Janie disappears, the hunt is on.
Fooling even her trusted lawyer, Janie zigzags from her party-girl lifestyle in LA, garbed in the most unattractive clothes in an effort to remain anonymous, to her secret destination. Somewhere en route, she steals a truck, finally arriving at Ardelle, South Dakota. Ardelle’s twin city, Adeline, is the poor cousin of the two and long grown into disrepair. This hyphenated geography is where Janie/Rebecca hopes to uncover the long-buried family secrets that will lead to the truth, bifurcated cities that aptly mirror the protagonist’s current incarnation as Janie/Rebecca.
Janie’s shtick grows wearisome, an acerbic running commentary better suited to her LA character than historian Rebecca. There is some respite in the cast of players, a collection of colorful characters, mostly relatives and even a love interest in the person of the local sheriff, who suspects bespectacled Rebecca is hiding something from the first time they meet. It all comes to a shuddering, violent end when Janie confronts the harsh truth of family entanglements and the duplicity of an ambitious girl desperate to flee her circumstances and start life over somewhere far away. Unfortunately, neither Janie nor Rebecca are likeable, only prickliness and self-righteousness defining either personality. And the ending, rather than bringing the comedy of errors to a close, sets the stage for yet another silly courtroom drama.
A caveat: Comparisons to popular and successful writers are a disservice to the author. Expectations are the kiss of death when they fail to materialize. Dear Daughter is perfectly readable and built on a promising premise. Problems arise from a flawed plot depending on contemporary technology when better developed characters would have served. Unlike television, there are no flashy camera shots to distract the audience, the ubiquity of social media insufficient to create depth. Fade to black.