Book Review: The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

Title: The Last Thing He Told Me
Author: Laura Dave
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller/contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We all have stories we never tell.

Before Owen Michaels disappears, he manages to smuggle a note to his beloved wife of one year: Protect her.

Despite her confusion and fear, Hannah Hall knows exactly to whom the note refers: Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. Bailey, who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.

As Hannah’s increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered; as the FBI arrests Owen’s boss; as a US Marshal and FBI agents arrive at her Sausalito home unannounced, Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey just may hold the key to figuring out Owen’s true identity—and why he really disappeared.

Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth, together. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realize they are also building a new future. One neither Hannah nor Bailey could have anticipated.

In Laura Dave’s unputdownable new novel, Hannah is happily married to Owen, and trying her best to get Owen’s 16-year-old daughter to accept her, or at the very least, to not actively dislike her. Owen and Hannah met and married and moved in together in his Sausalito floating home, all within the space of two years. But suddenly, their life is irreparably disrupted.

Owen’s tech company’s CEO is arrested for fraud and stock manipulation. It’s a huge scandal, but making matters worse for Hannah and Bailey is that Owen disappears as the news breaks. He hasn’t been arrested, and he hasn’t been directly implicated or accused of wrong-doing. Instead, he simply vanishes, leaving Hannah a scrawled note telling her to protect Bailey.

Hannah can’t believe that Owen is anything but a victim of circumstance, but his cryptic note confuses her. She’s even more disturbed when a Federal Marshal and then the FBI come knocking on her door, all looking for information on Owen’s whereabouts. With no way to reach Owen and no idea what he could be hiding, Hannah suggests to Bailey that they take matters into their own hands and go look for him instead.

Based on some loose memories of Bailey’s from her early childhood, as well as hints from some of Owen’s stories of his college days, they’re soon on his trail — but Hannah is horrified to discover that none of the history Owen shared with her seems to be true. Not his real name, not his family background, not his education… and if all of this is fabricated, then who really is this man she fell in love with and married?

Despite her own fears, Hannah realizes that she needs to honor Owen’s request to keep Bailey safe, even if Bailey seem to detest her and even if she doesn’t actually know what she’s protecting her from. But as they travel together to a new town and track down seemingly random facts and vague clues, they come to realize that they only have one another to rely on… and as they start putting the puzzle pieces together, Hannah becomes more and more certain that she may not like the answers she finds.

The Last Thing He Told Me is an intricately plotted web of misdirection and secrets. Through flashbacks, we see Hannah and Owen’s courtship and marriage, and learn the stories he shared with Hannah about his past. In the present, we see Hannah being truly there for Bailey, and Bailey’s grudging realization that Hannah might be the only person in the world she can fully count on.

There are deep, dark, dangerous secrets to be uncovered, and harsh truths for both Hannah and Bailey to confront. Ultimately, Hannah faces a decision that affects all of their lives, and only she has the ability to make sure that she’s choosing a path that carries out Owen’s wishes for Bailey.

I did not see where the story was going, and I was completely hooked on trying to figure out Owen’s secrets and why he behaved the way he did. Needless to say, the resolution was not what I expected! Kudos to the author for keeping me guessing all the way through!

In addition to the puzzle of the events of the story and the truth behind Owen’s disappearance, I really liked the developing trust and connection between Hannah and Bailey. I came to respect and admire Hannah very much — she’s put in an impossible situation, with no good options, and finds a way to do the right thing even when it feels like the worst choice in the world.

I picked up this book before it was announced that this would be the Hello, Sunshine choice for May. I’m delighted to see it getting so much attention! The Last Thing He Told Me is a gripping, fascinating read that practically demands to be discussed, and I think it would make a great book group selection.

Highly recommended!


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Book Review: Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave

Eight Hundred GrapesLife takes a decidedly unexpected turn for main character Georgia Ford in this novel about family, secrets, trust… and wine.

Georgia is a successful lawyer, happily living in LA, about to marry the man of her dreams and start a new life with him in London — when she sees him walking down the street with a gorgeous woman and a five-year-old girl with his eyes who calls him “Daddy”. Problem? The wedding is in one week. Another problem: Ben has never mentioned a daughter, but the woman is his ex-girlfriend — who just happens to be a world-famous movie star. Georgia flees, straight back to the comfort of family and home, but when she arrives, she doesn’t find exactly the peace and calm she’s looking for.

Instead, her family’s Sonoma vineyard is in an uproar. Her parents, who have an ultra-cute meet-cute story, have drifted apart, to the point where her mother is conducting a mostly-platonic affair with an old lover. What’s worse, her father has decided to sell his vineyard, his lifelong passion, to a huge wine company, one of the “evil” mass-market winemakers that he’s always hated. On top of that, Georgia’s twin brothers are feuding on a level that may change lives, and Georgia herself doesn’t know what she wants — for her future marriage or for her career. And then there’s Jacob,  the CEO of the huge wine company, who happens to be attractive, single, and not as evil as Georgia would like to believe him to be.

Do you smell a love triangle coming on? Because I sure did, the second Jacob appeared on the scene.

But in a sense, the love triangle is the least important love story going on here. In Eight Hundred Grapes, the most compelling love story is the story of Georgia’s family’s love for the land. In some of the most moving sections of the book, we learn about her father Dan’s devotion to his soil, his grapes, his winemaking process, his absolute belief in what he’s doing, and what it means to him, his family, and his community. Although Georgia outwardly has done everything she can to distance herself from the vineyards, her actions show how deeply rooted she is in the family acres and the business.

Author Laura Dave lovingly describes the natural beauty of Sonoma , the grace of nature, and a return to a respectful and mutually beneficial relationship to the land. Through the descriptions of Dan’s approach to viticulture, she shows that new possibilities exist, incorporating old traditions but infused with science and organic growth and cultivation.

The characters all have something at stake, and much thought is given to the concepts of what each truly values, what’s been given up in the past, and what each wants to get back or hold onto. There are plenty of missed chances and second chances, and the characters all go through various forms of eye-openings, learning to see each other not just as they always have, but taking a fresh look and understanding what each wants and needs.

It all felt like the same thing: the loss of the vineyard, the coming apart of our family. Finn and Bobby and Margaret. My parents. Ben and Maddie. Michelle. It all felt tied up, like the same thread was running through them. Where there had been trust — to keep each other safe, to make each other feel loved — there was none. Maybe it was tied up. Synchronized to come apart the moment my father turned his back on the vineyard and we were all too busy to stop him.

Back to the love triangle for a minute — at about the mid-point of the novel, I thought that I’d called it wrong and that there wouldn’t really be a love triangle. Okay, so I was right after all, but fortunately, the triangle isn’t the driving factor in this story. What’s more important is that Georgia is forced to take a good hard look at her relationship with her fiancé Ben, not just in light of the revelations about his daughter, but in terms of who she herself is and what she truly wants for her own life.

The writing is insightful, as Georgia analyzes (and perhaps overanalyzes) each family member’s every action and word.

Wasn’t the ultimate form of fidelity who you told your stories to? Ben had stopped telling me his.

Does she believe that her parents’ marriage is truly over? Does her father mean it when he says he’s done with the vineyard? She spends just as much time worrying over her own motivations: Did she choose a law career after seeing how frightening it can be to base everything on something outside of one’s own control? After growing up in a vineyard, she’s well aware of how one or two seasons of bad weather can threaten everything and take away years of hard work. So was she really just looking for a safer path for herself? And what does this say about her relationship with Ben? Does he represent the safe option as well?

Here’s where the more nitpicky part of this review comes along. I didn’t see the value of making Ben’s ex a movie star. It doesn’t add at all to the dynamics of the story, and we didn’t really need the extra element of Georgia feeling insecure or having to deal with the ex’s fame. Georgia’s relationship with Jacob is perhaps the weakest part of the story; again, it just didn’t feel terribly necessary to have a new love interest thrown into the mix of Georgia dealing with her family and her plans for her future.

These small issues aside, I really liked the storytelling in Eight Hundred Grapes, particularly seeing the world through Georgia’s eyes. Her perspective is fresh and funny, even when dealing with serious, momentous decisions. The family members are all well-developed, even those who don’t get a lot of major attention. The author does a great job of showing the family history, the years of love and tension, comfort and affection, that make up a whole. Woven into the entire story is the family’s traditions concerning the grapes — the harvest parties, the family dinners, the final harvesting of the most special grapes from the vines. Working with the vines and the soil is deeply embedded in every family moment, and we see that so clearly that it’s easy to understand why Dan’s decision to sell the vineyard is so much more than just a business decision.

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction with a lot of heart. It’s a quick read, but raises some interesting ideas about family, tradition, and the choices we all face about what to keep and what to give up.

PS – The title? Well, did you ever wonder how many grapes it takes to make a single bottle of wine? Now you know.


The details:

Title: Eight Hundred Grapes
Author: Laura Dave
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: June 2, 2015
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley