On the surface You Were Here is all of the Elyse-bait. It’s a psychological thriller set in present and past, a story about infidelity and family lies. It also features a heroine who dreams of some tragic event long-ago, nightmares that are so vivid they disrupt her life.
All of those elements are there, but they fail to gel together to make a story that’s cohesive.
You Were Here opens with Abby Walter’s having one of the horrific nightmares that plagues her, dreams that feature a sense of foreboding and disaster. These nightmares occur so frequently and so vividly that they are a part of her life in the way that migraines might be part of another person’s: they are pervasive and painful. Her family and her boyfriend, Robert, are aware of them and accepting in a way that’s surprising. No one suggests Abby see a psychiatrist or even a GP for the nightmares that are making it hard for her live a normal life.
“Oh, you had one of your soul-destroying dreams, honey? How awful. Anyway, I’m making salmon for dinner.”
Who the fuck are people?
Abby is living in LA, far away from her birthplace in Minnesota. Robert, her commitment-phobic boyfriend, is a screenwriter who just finished a script he is certain will change their lives (yes, Robert is that guy).
In her dreams Abby hears the name Claire Ballantine, and she’s shocked to find out that Claire was a real person, her late grandmother’s neighbor. Claire disappeared many years before Abby’s birth, and the mystery of her whereabouts was never solved. Determined to resolve her ever increasing nightmares and get away from Robert for a little while, Abby goes back to Makade, Minnesota.
When Abby gets home she reconnects with Aidan, her once high school crush now detective. Aidan is currently assigned to a case involving a serial rapist turned murderer who is terrorizing Makade.
That’s the “Now” section of the book. The “Then” section takes us back to 1948. Claire Ballantine is negotiating a loveless marriage with her husband, William. She and William are wealthy and privileged, and marriage to him is essentially what Claire was raised for. She simultaneously loves her husband and is stifled by their relationship.
William, meanwhile, is having an affair with a woman from a small town, Eva Marten. He meets with her while on “business trips.” Claire knows William is having an affair and is determined to end it. Eva knows about Claire. Both women are on a dangerous collision course, desperate to meet the other, terrified, and uncertain of what they would do to guarantee William’s love.
Honestly, the “Then” portions of the novel were the best. Eva is never painted as a villainous “other woman” just as Claire is never the naïve wife. Both women are complex, artistic and intelligent. They’ve never met, but have both created a fictional woman they believe the other to be. Eva and Claire are the stars of the book, detailed and complicated, and watching them come closer and closer to each other was fascinating.
The only part I couldn’t figure out was why either was so devoted to William who, frankly, was about as exciting and nuanced as skim milk. His character development is wafer-thin.
When we get back to the “Now” portion of the book, Aidan, with all his free time amid the rape-murder investigation, is helping Abby solve the mystery of Claire’s disappearance. And this is when things started to go south.
First of all, the serial killer/rapist subplot could be eliminated entirely. It added nothing to the story and in fact often detracted from the mystery Abby is trying to solve. The historical mystery of what happened to Claire is slow building, not scary, just engrossing. Then every few chapters we’re reminding of some guy out there raping and killing women in their homes. The tones of these two mysteries are like night and day, and the effect was to pull me out of the story entirely.
In fact, the “Now” and “Then” portions of the book never gelled. It’s never explained why Abby has these nightmares regarding Claire. It’s not “genetic” memory as she’s not related to Claire. It’s not a past life and the book has no supernatural tones. It reads like a convenient device to create a mystery.
Which also leads to me to my pet peeve: Abby and Aidan never sleep. Abby avoids sleep because of the nightmares, and Aidan is helping her out while still trying to find that fucking serial killer.
I once went twenty-four hours without sleep and I thought I was going to die. If I was Abby or Aidan I’d be hysterical, sobbing, and would have forgotten about serial killers and/or mysterious disappearances from 1948. I’d be raiding the medicine cabinet for Benadryl or Nyquil or hard liquor to knock me out.
Also Abby and Aidan are realizing their love for each other because of course they are. While not sleeping.
I think the book might have been trying to tell us something about infidelity but I don’t know what that was. I didn’t care that Abby cheated on Robert because he’s the two-dimensional “I’ll commit to you once I sell this screenplay, baby” douchebag boyfriend character. I didn’t care about William because he’s the fictional equivalent of tapioca pudding–you’ll eat it, remember why you didn’t like it, then forgot you ate it. One is insufferable, the other is boring.
The Claire/ Eva storyline is fascinating and does come to a truly creepy ending, but it wasn’t enough to make up for unnecessary serial killers, sleepless heroes/heroines, and it didn’t rely on the “Now” portion of the book at all. It could have stood up as a novel in its own right.
If You Were Here offers up a few thrills, but it largely disappoints, and it fails to stand out in the psychological thriller crowd.
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You Were Here by Gian Sardar
May 16, 2017
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