Author: Laura Kasischke
Format: galley (available for purchase in paperback)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Release Date: 3/15/2011
Length: 360 pages (Amazon states length of paperback to be 496 pages)
Acquired: from the publisher via NetGalley
The accident was tragic, yes. Bloody and horrific and claiming the life of a beautiful young sorority girl. NICOLE was a straight A student from a small town. Sweet-tempered, all-American, a former Girl Scout, and a virgin. But it was an accident. And that was last year. It’s fall again, a new semester, a fresh start.
CRAIG, who has not been charged with murder, is focusing on his classes, and also on avoiding Nicole’s sorority sisters, who seem to blame him for her death even though the police did not.
PERRY, Craig’s roommate, is working through his own grief (he grew up with Nicole, after all, and had known her since kindergarten) by auditing Professor Polson’s sociology class: Death, Dying, and the Undead.
MIRA has been so busy with her babies—two of them, twins, the most perfect boys you could imagine, but still a nearly impossible amount of work even with Clark’s help—that she can barely keep herself together to teach (Death, Dying and the Undead), let alone write the book she’ll need to publish for tenure.
And SHELLY, who was the first person at the scene of the accident, has given up calling the newspapers to tell them that, despite the “lake of blood” in which they keep reporting the victim was found, the girl Shelly saw that night was not bloody, and not dead.
When I began reading this book, I had a difficult time getting a feel for it. It jumped from the present to the past with no indication as to when a particular section took place. I would sometimes have to read a sentence or three to get my bearings and realize what was going on. It kind of bugged, at first but I eventually got used to it. In fact, the further the story progressed, the more I came to realize that this was the only way Kasischke could have written this story… that the jumping back and forth was the only way for me, as the reader, to get to the big reveal when and how I was supposed to do so.
The story centers around several people at a mid-western university that have been affected, or will come to be affected, by the death of freshman student, Nicole the previous Spring. Her sorority sisters would blame her boyfriend, Craig for her “murder”, spreading the word throughout campus and to the newspapers that he was drunk and therefore solely responsible for her bloody, fiery death inside the car that Craig had been driving.
Craig, however, has absolutely no memory of that night and only knows he wasn’t intoxicated because the blood tests said he wasn’t. He has no idea what happened, other than what he was told: that he walked away from the accident, leaving Nicole to die. Despite the efforts by Nicole’s former sorority to have him either arrested for murder or banned from the university, he returns to campus for the fall term to continue his education. Despite counseling and his friend Perry’s support, Craig has a hard time adjusting. Then he starts having strange dreams, getting odd phone calls and receiving post cards from a dead girl.
Shelly, an older woman who works at the university is frustrated that her statements to the newspaper have gone ignored for months and that nobody seems to care that when she saw Nicole immediately after the accident, the girl was neither bloody, burned, in the car or even dead. She has no idea that her persistence in trying to get the paper to publish the truth has made her a target.
Meanwhile, Perry who was not only Nicole’s childhood friend but was also Craig’s roommate, struggles to cope with Nicole’s death and the reports from a couple of fellow students that they had seen her since she had died. Walking around campus, talking to them, having sex with them. And Perry has a picture of her. A picture taken at Nicole’s former sorority house… during a tree planting intended as a memorial to Nicole.
Wondering if he and the others who have seen her are losing their minds, Perry seeks answers in Professor Mira Polson’s seminar on Death, Dying and the Undead. He then decides to approach her about Nicole and tell the professor the whole unbelievable story. Perhaps she can help him to make sense of what’s been going on. Perhaps she can somehow help.
Mira thinks Perry’s story might just prove to be enough fodder for her next book, which upon being published would secure her tenure at the university. She’s been struggling for some time to attain those related goals while she fears losing her twin boys, just toddlers, as her marriage falls apart.
As we learn of Craig and Nicole’s back story and the events leading up to the night of the car accident, the events of the present begin to progress as information and suspicions are shared and conclusions are drawn. Improbable, horrific conclusions that nobody wants to face, although they have no choice, and which will change the course of all of their lives.
Once I was into this story, I could just not stop reading it. I stayed up late at night, put off chores and meals just to read one more chapter or find a stopping place that didn’t leave me rabid to keep going so I could find out what the hell was going on! I thought about it while I hurriedly showered and with still wet hair, grabbed portable food from the kitchen so that I could return to the couch, grab my laptop and resume reading.
This story captivated me. The characters moved me as they struggled with guilt and grief, confusion and frustration. They also infuriated me with their rash, irresponsible behavior. There’s nothing I wanted to do more as the story came to a close than to grab fistfuls of my favorite character’s shirt and shake him while imploring him not to do the incredibly irrational thing he was doing. Wanting to do so did about as much good as shouting at the stupid woman in the horror movie that you’re watching to not go outside, what are you doing? The bad guy/monster/killer/alien is out there! One of the saddest things in this story, to me, was the immediate and irreversible consequence of that incredibly irrational action. It was heartbreaking and it made me angry.
In fact, a lot about this story made me angry. Not at the author, mind… but at the people in the story who felt they could just play around with other people’s lives like they were all-powerful puppeteers who could make people dance with a twitch of their hand. I have to admit to guessing at the big reveal before it was made though I have a suspicion that it was Kasischke’s intent for this to happen. There was quite a bit of foreshadowing so it wasn’t especially difficult to figure out what had actually happened that night but the mind instinctively tries to reject the knowledge that people could do such things… that people would do such things.
The end of this book was admittedly, not very satisfying though again, I think that was the author’s intent. There was no happy ending… life just went on. For the most part, anyway. Despite this, I recommend this book to anyone who likes a mystery… especially one tinged with the supernatural and a healthy dose of conspiratorial drama. I’m now interested in Kasischke’s other works!