Author: Polly Stewart
Publication: HarperCollins, hardcover, 2023
Setting: Rural Virginia
Description: Lauren Ballard disappeared nearly 20 years ago, leaving a husband and six-month-old baby, after spending a carefree afternoon with Nicola Bennett. She was never found. Everyone who knew her was questioned and those close to her were traumatized by her loss. Now, Nicola’s mother has died and she returns to Tyndall County to go through her mother’s possessions and ask Lauren’s realtor husband Warren to sell the house she grew up in. Yet once Nicola is back in her hometown, she is so strongly reminded of her friend that she decides to stay and investigate her disappearance. Taking a temporary position at the high school both attended, Nicola begins to ask questions about Lauren, not realizing her obsessive curiosity could be very dangerous or that everyone in Tyndall kept secrets she never knew.
My Impression: The most surprising part of the book was when Warren’s grandmother (a Radcliffe alumna) leaves Nicola some children’s books in her will:
Mrs. Ballard had left me a bunch of old children’s books I’d never heard of: Betsy-Tacy, Elsie Dinsmore, plus a few Brontës and some paperback mysteries by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. The Betsy-Tacy books were all right, but Elsie Dinsmore was god-awful. I read ten pages and shoved the whole box in my closet.The bequest had nothing to do with the plot but (a) maybe a little more time with Betsy-Tacy would have improved Nicola's personality and (b) I doubt Warren and Sean Ballard’s mother wanted her son to date her mother-in-law’s cleaning lady’s daughter, even if she was a reader!
There were so many things that bothered me about this book, beginning with the unlikable protagonist. The author says it “is not a story about a murder. It’s not the story of what happened to Lauren Ballard in the early-morning hours of August 10, 2001,” so I suppose you could say it is a story about a woman who had a love-hate relationship with a charismatic older girl whose disappearance left her with unresolved guilt. Admittedly, I read until the end; I wanted to know how it would end. What annoyed me was that there were so many inconsistencies, unanswered questions, and just plain illogical aspects of the plot, some of which I have outlined below: