While my first impression of this novel was that it was a literary mystery, I found myself increasingly disgruntled, both by the main protagonist, Theresa Battle, and her investigation into the murder of her brother’s girlfriend, Kim Graber. While Theresa (who has yet to finish her doctoral dissertation at thirty-five and has collected a menagerie of pets to mirror each romantic breakup) tolerates Jeff’s relationship with a young woman she considers a bit dumb, she is happy to see him successfully navigating this area of his life. Everything changes, though, when Kim is found murdered and Jeff, supposedly in a blackout, cannot provide an alibi for the police. It is not surprising, then, when Jeff becomes the prime suspect. And, as any loving sister would do, Theresa decides to track Kim’s activities before her murder to find the real killer.
All of this is fine as far as it goes, but the story begins to decelerate from the first interactions between Theresa and Jeff, when their conversations not only illustrate the closeness of their relationship but also patterns developed in childhood that have kept them from deeper, more meaningful sharing, whether Jeff’s attempts to find oblivion in drinking or Theresa’s resistance to finishing her thesis, or even the inane habitual conversations brother and sister engage in, a more intelligent version of “Did so. Did not.” Theresa’s Nancy Drew approach to Kim’s death is fraught with foolishness better suited to a “twenty-something” than a woman of her age.
Perhaps the clue is in Theresa’s choice of a topic for her thesis: a medieval woman circa 1373, Margery Kempe, unique for having the details of her life documented as she pursues celibacy and spirituality after birthing fourteen children and demanding celibacy from a reluctant husband. Admittedly, Theresa slips in and out of Margery’s life, often exhibiting the same arbitrariness of her subject, who was hardly a popular figure among her contemporaries. Add to that the fear of being viewed as a cat lady—in which case she shouldn’t conduct running dialogs with her cats—and the little dog she was supposedly petsitting for Kim for a weekend, and Theresa would be hard-pressed to refute such suspicions.
The promotional material compares Arsenault to Tana French and Laura Lippman. I admit to falling victim to false expectations. That’s my fault for believing the publicity. Literary pretensions aside, much of this novel felt so infantile, from the actions and mentality of the protagonist to the resolution at the end—a true Nancy Drew moment—that I am unable to imagine the audience for this tale. The plot covers serious issues: political corruption, murder, devastating childhood traumas, alcoholism and family dysfunction. In contrast, the author’s perspective seems more in tune with academia than real-world drama. The plot never exhibits a comprehension of reality, of real threat, a dilettante’s interpretation of murder, murderers and the consequences of interfering in people’s lives. Theresa behaves like an elderly aunt muddling through other’s lives in pursuit of information. Frequent passages meant to portray the protagonist’s personality (amusing? quirky?) lack authenticity, like an uber-observant Jerry Seinfeld without the humor or irony, or an endlessly ruminating young Woody Allen in a dress.
I don’t doubt Arsenault’s writing skills but do question her commitment to the material, perhaps her inability to transition from academia to the grittier aspects of life. Clearly, it is “women’s fiction-lite” and should have been marketed as such (in my opinion). There are many mysteries written from unconventional perspectives, but they usually have illustrations on the covers to indicate this or titles that suggest the lightness of the fare. I also don’t doubt that this title will have many fans who take issue with me. That’s as is should be. I just prefer to spend my time reading books that satisfy my thirst for great storytelling and the portrayal of real human pathos to remind me of my place in the universe.