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:

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: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Title: Such a Fun Age
Author: Kiley Reid
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: December 31, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A striking and surprising debut novel from an exhilarating new voice, Such a Fun Age is a page-turning and big-hearted story about race and privilege, set around a young black babysitter, her well-intentioned employer, and a surprising connection that threatens to undo them both.

Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living showing other women how to do the same. A mother to two small girls, she started out as a blogger and has quickly built herself into a confidence-driven brand. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night. Seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, a security guard at their local high-end supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make it right.

But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.

With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” the complicated reality of being a grown up, and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Such a Fun Age? Such a good book!

I’ve been seeing glowing reviews for this book on all sorts of book blogs over the last few weeks, and the hype has only intensified now that Such a Fun Age has been chosen as the newest Reese Witherspoon book club pick.

Debut author Kiley Reid highlights a complex web of issues surrounding race, income inequality, social power, and more in this intriguing look at the intersections of family and privilege.

25-year-old Emira is a college grad who’s at loose ends, never having found her passion or true calling. She makes ends meet — barely — by working as a part-time typist and babysitting three days per week for a precious little almost-three-year-old named Briar.

Briar’s parents, Alix and Peter, are recent transplants from New York to Philadelphia. Alix is a social media influencer who has somehow parlayed her talent for getting corporations to send her free stuff in exchange for media coverage into a career as an inspirational speaker and advocate for women’s voices. She lives for the attention and perceived power, loves the image of herself as an influential, visionary women’s leader, and doesn’t particularly have the attention or patience for a small child.

Alix and Peter are white and affluent; Emira is African American and living payday to payday, relying on her more successful friends’ generosity and worrying about her upcoming 26th birthday when she’ll lose her health insurance coverage as her parents’ dependent.

Emira and Briar have an amazing bond. It’s not that Emira loves kids — she just gets Briar and adores her, and the feeling is mutual.

The action starts as Emira is out partying with friends and gets a frantic call from Alix. There’s an emergency at the house, and they need Emira to come take Briar out for a bit. Yes, it’s 10 pm, but this is truly urgent. Emira agrees, and takes Briar to a favorite location, the snooty upper-class (and very white) neighborhood market, where Briar loves to look at the bins of nuts and teas.

Things go wrong, and quickly. Another shopper is suspicious of the young black girl in the party dress toting around a small blonde child. Security intervenes, and things get ugly, and the incident is captured on video by a do-gooder bystander. The incident is awful and upsetting, and Emira just wants to put it behind her once it’s over.

At the same time, Alix develops an odd fascination with Emira, who is unfailingly polite but not particularly interested in Alix. Alix sees herself in a saviour role, wanting to help Emira, bond with her, enrich her life, and become her bestie. She’d love to convince herself and all her friends that Emira is part of the family. But why this growing obsession? What’s behind her need to know and be involved?

As the story progresses, things get more and more complicated. The point of view shifts between Alix and Emira, so we get very different reads on the same situations. And when an unexpected connection between Alix and Emira’s new boyfriend is revealed, complication escalate even further.

It’s a fascinating story. The characters are multi-faceted and often surprising. Honestly, it’s really difficult to like Alix even a little bit, even understanding some of the pain and difficulty in her background. Emira’s boyfriend Kelley also has issues, and despite seeming like a mostly stand-up guy, there are certainly some questions about his interpretation of events, his motivations, and his choices.

Emira is very much a woman of the times, 20-something, economically unsteady, wanting more but not sure what or how to move forward, torn between practicality, her own interests, and what everyone else seems to think is best for her.

The author captures so much about the chasms in today’s society in terms of race and social status and affluence. She shows the privilege that pervades self-identified liberals’ attitudes and the (perhaps) unwitting arrogance that makes a person of wealth and influence feel that they know how best to help someone with less.

I loved the writing and the zippy dialogue, as well as the plot that races through the story without short-changing the characters and their conflicts. It’s fascinating to see how different characters’ memories and interpretations of the same events can be so wildly different.

I’m not surprised to see this book being picked up as a book group choice both by mega-star clubs like Reese’s and by casual groups too. In fact, that’s my one complaint — where’s a book group when I need it?

It’s maddening to have no one to talk about this book with. There’s so much to discuss and pull apart and argue over! This is a book that I’ll definitely be pushing into the hands of as many of my bookish friends as possible.