The last thing he told me, by Laura Dave [Review]

This bestseller and Reese’s Book Club selection is my book club’s January read. Based on the hype and the 60,000 reviews on Amazon, I had high expectations. The book did not live up to them. I’m certainly not the target audience, and I’ll admit that, as a male, I may be missing the emotional connection between the heroine, Hannah, and her step-daughter, Bailey. That’s the whole story – that connection and Hannah’s emotions and decisions that link back to her own feelings of abandonment after her mother left her as a child in the care of her benevolent grandfather. As much as that upbringing ultimately shaped Hannah in a positive way, she (apparently) longs for a connection with Bailey, and is willing to risk and/or sacrifice everything to achieve it – no matter how much of a teenage brat Bailey is and no matter how much Bailey has resented Hannah ever since she married the girl’s father.

There are other problems with the story and the execution, but the biggest negative for me is that I never “got” that mother/daughter bonding emotional core. The relationship between Hannah and Bailey was strained from the beginning, and never really developed through the crisis to the end. I know the author wants me to feel warm and fuzzy about it, but it never really got there for me. Without that, the book is a modestly interesting story. Not bad, but nothing special. So, be prepared.

The crisis here happens immediately, as Hannah’s husband of about 18 months, Owen, runs away. His company is under investigation by the SEC for fraud (which is a big news story for reasons that are never fully explained). Owen leaves behind a duffle bag filled with $600,000 in cash and a note to Hannah saying only: “Protect her.” (Hannah remembers these words inside her head twenty or more times during the narrative.) When Grady, a U.S. Marshall, shows up and tries to give Hannah advice about how to best protect Bailey (without giving her the whole story), she promptly ignores it and runs off to Austin, Texas, based on a vague childhood memory that Bailey has of being there for a wedding. Austin, it turns out, is the worst possible place for Hannah and Bailey to go. After a series of tenuously connected events, Hannah and Bailey must confront the truth, and Hannah must make the most difficult decision of her life.

By the time we get there, we’re supposed to feel Hannah’s conflict and the tug of her maternal instinct that, along with Owen’s last instruction, makes Hannah want to “protect her.” Unless the reader has that deep emotional bond with Hannah, the conclusion doesn’t really work.

The story (except for the many flashbacks) is written in first person present – inside the head of the protagonist, Hannah. I find the stylistic choice uncomfortable as a reader, but you get used to it. It’s also annoying that the chapters have titles, but no numbers. (Hint – pay attention to the titles, when one chapter title is “Twenty-Four Hours Earlier” – that’s significant). The book is pretty short, particularly if you factor out the flashbacks, so perhaps the author didn’t want to emphasize its brevity. There are many flashbacks of moments from the past, which represent Hannah thinking about things that Owen said or did that confirm now, in the present, that they were consistent with what she now thinks she knows. None of these help find him. There are also a few that give glimpses of the strained relationship between Hannah and Bailey to fill in small bits of their relationship’s backstory. Overall, the flashbacks are not very valuable.

The writing is mostly fine, although there are too many repeated phrases and inside-her-head internal discussions that are meant to raise the tension level, but which often fail. The Author also has an annoying habit, in the first person, of starting a sentence, adding in “I say,” then putting in a period. Then picking up the same sentence with a new capital letter rather than continuing the sentence after the “I say.” (E.g., “I saw her,” I say. “Over by the boat.”) This is not grammatically “wrong” since she can start the sentence anywhere she wants to, but it’s choppy and distracting for no reason.

What doesn’t really work is the plot. If you deconstruct the story, it’s impossible to understand why Owen or Hannah would think that Bailey is ever in danger. It’s also difficult to understand Owen’s actions, or find a logical explanation for Hannah’s behavior. But Hannah, at least, can be seen as moved by the events of the moment and, in her head, trying to figure out the right thing to do with very little information. Why Owen didn’t leave her (and Bailey) a more helpful note, is impossible to fathom, other than that it wouldn’t have made for as exciting and mysterious a story.

The reader can overlook the logical problems with the plot if there were enough development of the relationship between Hannah and Bailey, which is the real core of the book. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that. Others, it seems (based on all the great reviews), were more than satisfied. Your emotional mileage may vary.

P.S. – the Texas longhorns played SEVEN (7) games at their stadium in Austin in 2008. Not  eight, as stated in the book during the lengthy section in which Hannah and Bailey are trying to track down the participants in the wedding that Bailey vaguely remembers happening on a day when her father then walked her over to the stadium to watch a football game. In the story, Hannah even has her newspaper reporter best friend research the exact dates, so they can pinpoint which wedding might have been the key event. Come on! That is not hard to research. Texas had a “home” game against Oklahoma, but the game was played in Dallas, not Austin. That is terrible story research, and a fact that did not need to be so emphasized, since it was ultimately not important. But, if the author is going to make such a big deal of it — she should get it right.

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