Sometimes the more hideous the secrets, the more carefully the mask is constructed. Just ask Anna Whitaker, a lecturer in English Literature whose 13-year-old daughter, Julie, has been missing for eight years. In hot, humid Huston, innocence and parental angst
are balanced against the reality that Julie is probably dead. Now that Julie’s roadside billboards are a thing of the past, Anna and her husband, Tom, allow themselves to indulge in one more daily fantasy: that her younger daughter, Jane, will somehow recall what happened that terrible night when, for three hours, she sat in the closet rigid with fear before rousing her parents with her panicked crying.
Anna’s fantasy offers little consolation for a woman who get out of bed in the morning and face a world where “the worst thing has already happened.” Anna might think she has lost everything, but nothing prepares her or Tom for the shock when their doorbell rings and Julie stands before them, her pale hair all lit up “in a rosy polluted glow.” While a shocked Tom attempts to embrace his newfound daughter, Anna urgently calls 911, positive that Julie has been harmed. As Huston’s long, hot summer
unwinds, Anna marvels at Julie's rush into her arms from across the room.
Thus begins Gentry’s clever thriller unfolding with just enough information to make us suspect Julie’s motivations in a series of surprising plot twists that manipulate our gauzy impressions of what Julie
has really been doing for all those eight years. The reader is caught between real admiration and sympathy for Anna, Tom, and Jane, only to be shocked by each new revelation. Clearly Julie
is not the girl she used to be. After the medical examiner sheds light on certain particulars
(particulars which Anna now knows), Julie must do battle with the love she’s fighting against, a warmth that threatens to betray her whenever a boy called Cal looks at her. Julie can’t get rid of “Cal”; she feels violated and possessed, forced to acknowledge that betrayal runs deep down into her blood.
As the days and weeks pass, Anna and Tom are frequently at odds with one another, each locked in their own “private mausoleums.” Anna is devastated to learn that Tom has used up the money in “The Julie Fund.” She’s also unnerved by Julie’s presumed innocence,
something that has been nagging at the corners of her mind since Julie’s arrival back in Huston. There’s something not quite right about Julie’s story of how she was abducted. With Julie refusing to tell her family anything outside of the police report, Anna pleads with Julie’s therapist to release her daughter’s personal information.
Anna learns that Julie has missed a series of appointments, then is blindsided by the revelations from Alex Mercado, a local retired police detective who originally worked on Julie’s case. Clandestinely meeting Anna at a local coffee shop, Mercado hands Anna a file that places Julie’s identity in doubt.
From the manila envelope with the dog-eared flap, indicating layer upon layer of sedimentary lies in which Anna thinks she sees a “glossy corner" of the truth, to Julie’s mysterious attendance at a local evangelical church, to a grainy Youtube video of a nightclub singer, Anna’s relentless journey to discover Julie’s hidden past proves to be as suffocating as the oppressively hot Huston summer. Gentry accelerates her plot into a whole new territory, driving Julie backwards into a world of foster care and a downward-drifting lifestyle of drugs, prostitution, and homelessness, a desperate, damaged young girl working as a stripper in series of sleazy clubs in Portland.
In what is basically a suspense story focusing on the relationship between a mother and her daughter, Julie becomes the cagey, damaged facilitator, descending back into the lives of her parents and her sister, always hiding something while succumbing to the need to contact the mysterious Cal on her cell phone. Anna tries to be understanding, at first treating Julie with kid gloves.
At times, though, she seems at a loss to understand what really motivates her daughter’s secrets: “From the moment she appeared on our doorstep...[h]er lies and evasions made doubting her easier, gave me something concrete to focus on.”
A fresh and exciting voice in the realm of suspense fiction, Gentry offers a unique spin on this riddle of a missing girl suddenly returned, as well as
the travails of the good and kind family who love her. From that evening eight years ago when
she was kidnapped to her decadent trail and her sudden and unexpected reappearance, Julie’s journey is extraordinary. Provocative and ambitious, the denouement unfolds in a confessional that takes us back to the prologue, to the story of how Anna lost her daughter and perhaps everything else
on that single, fateful night.