Thursday, October 24, 2013

After Her, by Joyce Maynard

Rachel and Patty are sisters, growing up in Marin County in the late 70s. They adore their police officer father, Anthony Toricelli, even though they rarely see him once their parents divorce. In actuality, they don't see their mother all that much either because she retreats to her bedroom as soon as she gets home from work. The girls are left mainly on their own, and they devise varied and creative ways of entertaining themselves, roaming the mountain behind their house, watching the Brady Bunch through the windows of their neighbors' houses, and acting out stories that Rachel writes. Patty loves basketball and dogs, while Rachel loves to write, believes she has the second sight, and worries about getting her period.

When a serial killer goes on a rampage on their mountain, their father's sudden fame as the lead detective on the case is initially a boon to Rachel's social life--the "cool" kids at her junior high are suddenly interested in the insider information she gets from her father (his good looks don't hurt either). When the killings continue and the police have no leads, however, their father's health and Rachel's popularity both suffer. Rachel becomes obsessed with the case, believing she is having visions of the crime scenes and deciding she can help her father catch the killer. The results cause public humiliation for Rachel, Patty, and their dad.

The book then jumps forward 30 years. Rachel is a mystery/thriller writer whose life has been shaped by the Sunset Strangler case. She still hopes to vindicate her family, and her efforts seem nearly as ill-considered as her strategies as a teenager.

While the book is ostensibly a mystery/thriller, at its core it is a coming-of-age story that beautifully depicts the relationship between the two sisters and their love for their father, as well as their dawning realization of his flaws.  The book is not perfect by any means--the girls' mother is not well drawn (she's depressed but she might as well be dead), the twists revealed when Rachel is an adult are not very surprising, and the ending is a bit too neat. Nonetheless, it's a book worth reading.

Favorite passage:
If she had the right dance partner, he said, a woman should be able to close her eyes and let him take her anywhere. But steer clear of a man with a limp hand. You want to feel strong pressure on your back, and his hand pressing against yours, as he led. It's fine if he smells your hair--you want a sensual man--but not his hand on your rear end. And if he doesn't walk you back to your table after the dance, he's danced his last with you.

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