Standards, genres

I find I don’t often enjoy the books that mainstream book clubs are out there touting like mad; or sometimes I do enjoy them, but it’s more like an unhealthy sugar rush than a savored meal, something you may regret later. Part of the reason usually turns out to be the frantic push to define a book as something more than it is.

That was the case when I read The Last Thing He Told Me, by Laura Dave. It’s not without merit: The central decision of the main character to do something that will forever deprive her of the thing she has discovered she wants was, to me, a compelling plot twist and the best part of the book. But the efforts of the publisher, the book clubs, and now Apple TV+ to convince us that this is an explosive mystery/thriller do a disservice to what is basically a domestic drama.

Hannah, a woman with an established life and an involving and creative career, meets Owen, and finds for the first time in her life that she can put aside all her reservations and enter wholly into a relationship. They take it to the next step, Hannah leaving her base in New York City for life on a houseboat in Sausalito with Owen and his 15-year-old daughter, Bailey. Her stepdaughter doesn’t warm up to her, and Hannah is, quite frankly, somewhat pathetic in the ways she tries to win Bailey over. Then, one day, Owen disappears, leaving behind a cryptic note that says “Protect her.” Bailey is the most important person in his life and, finding himself unable to be there for her himself, he asks Hannah to step up. This is where the contrived plot started to lose me because, as we discover as the story proceeds, there are specific people from whom Bailey needs protecting, but since Owen fails to mention any of them (a simple addendum of “Don’t go to this city!” would have sufficed), that leaves Hannah and Bailey walking right into danger as they do their amateur sleuth routine trying to find out why Owen has disappeared. For a person with as much talent for deception as Owen turns out to be, you’d think he would have thought ahead a little?

There were some nice moments as Bailey and Hannah come to trust each other (or more likely realize that there is no one else) and their relationship starts to unfold, but other aspects of the story (such as the involvement of the FBI and the ineffectiveness of the Witness Protection Program) are dealt with summarily to the story’s disadvantage. I did enjoy the sleuthing parts as they research Owen’s (and Bailey’s) past (probably the librarian in me), but the detecting bits don’t make this a mystery any more than the drama makes this a thriller. Many of the reviewers I saw on Goodreads disliked the book not because of its own inherent merits or failings but because its genre was misrepresented by the hype.

If you do decide to read it, therefore, go into it as an example of relationship fiction with a little extra excitement provided by the circumstances surrounding the central theme, and put those other genre labels out of your head. As a “What if?” story, it’s quite engaging enough to provide a pleasant afternoon’s read, but if you pick it up expecting Jennifer Hillier or Sharon Bolton-level thrills, you will be disappointed.

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