Kramon’s compelling psychological thriller kept me reading long into the night despite its rather formulaic and predictable plot. The author knows how to layer that extra element of suspense so that it is not apparent from the outset who the bad guy is, what his motives may be, or even how he’s doing what he’s doing. Against the backdrop of the picaresque fictional Stradler College, the narrative shifts between impressionable student Julia Sitwell, a cafeteria worker named Sam, and Julia’s newly discovered boyfriend, Marcus.
Kramon early establishes the internal conflicts of each character: Julia and her lack of concern for other people’s opinions; Marcus, who seems to be moving “inside a psycho bubble,” completely disconnected from the people around him; and solitary Sam, who likes to read fiction while thoughts “slosh in his head,” mostly in the form of memories of his past relationships. Suddenly excited and anxious at finally meeting a girl like Julia, Sam worries about the future even as he stubbornly holds onto a nostalgia for the past.
Julia is still reeling from the death of her brother, Paul. She feels responsible for the accident that killed him. Her mother blames her while her father calls only a few times, “maybe once a week,” tactfully refusing to discuss Thanksgiving—the first without Paul. This only adds to Julia‘s vulnerability and leads her to fall into the arms of Sam, who is simply there with her. Sam respects her grief and the landscape of loss and is especially is aware of how important it is for Julia to her to stay in control of her feelings.
Marcus is also drawn to Julia, not just because of who she is but because she represents a bridge to his past and a place he thought he could never go again. Julia, meanwhile, feels like a “cold fish,” and she is plagued by the feeling that someone is watching her. There’s a constant feeling of fear, a sense that something’s not right—especially when she receives an anonymous note in her dorm room that contains the words “Hey Julia, hope to see you there.”
Kramon’s writing style is taut, a perfect fit for this vexing tale, a complex blend of night-filled wintry suspense where all three of the main characters intersect at critical stages, and converge in an isolated cabin the woods (where else!). After a tender dinner, Julia finds herself drawn ever-more to enigmatic Sam, and into the middle of both Sam and Marcus’s affections. She is unaware of the looming threat of Sam’s inner, much more sinister nature.
Stumbling into Sam‘s arms, Julia becomes embroiled with what appears at first to be an unstable Marcus. Who is the psycho terrorizing all the girls on campus? The brutal rape of a series of women may be the final stroke in a serial murderer’s rampage after a long incarceration. Multilayered with shifting points of view, Kramon’s plot portrays Julia as the classic outsider, a good person locked into a life of unrealized dreams. Sam becomes a true master of deception, masking his own inequities under the guise of guiding troubled souls.
Placing his tortured characters on a trajectory toward each another, Kramon excels in showing the descent into the sad circumstances that have brought these people to the state where life no longer has meaning. While Julia is at times perhaps not as sympathetic as Marcus, the author does a fine job of balancing their journeys with vignettes of the other students of Stradler College, along with scenes of exquisite tension as he moves his three hostages toward a final, devastating confrontation.