Waking up one wintry morning in her old farmhouse nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, Nora Hamilton instantly knows that something is wrong. When her fog of sleep clears, she finds her world is suddenly, irretrievably shattered: Her husband, Brendan, has committed suicide.
This incomprehensible shock plunges Nora into a reality she hardly recognizes, much less understands. After only a precious few years of marriage to this strong, quiet man, Nora realizes how little she knew about him. That’s about to change. The secrets he hid in life will now be discovered because Nora will not stop until she answers the one question that haunts her every waking minute. Why?
Barely able to process this unspeakable tragedy, Nora knows she must somehow find the truth, but that in itself proves to be a Herculean task. A transplant into this small Wedeskyull community, Nora has no significant connection to anyone without Brendan, and though Brendan’s friends and colleagues offer her their condolences, no one’s willing to answer her questions. So begins her arduous, meandering journey through the secrets of her husband’s past and the mystery behind his death.
Though Brendan was a local police officer, Nora cannot claim any special knowledge about the specifics of his work. Her efforts to conduct her own investigation are awkward and unsystematic, and the information she gathers amounts to little more than bread crumbs on a snowy path, but it’s enough to make Brendan’s fellow officers nervous. Their insistence that she simply let it go raises her suspicions, forcing her to turn to a local journalist for help. Together, these two outsiders not only discover the truth about Brendan, they also uncover a history of conspiracy, corruption, and murder.
Debut novelist Jenny Milchman’s story contains a strong emotional core. Her opening scene is riveting and heart-wrenching in equal measure. The reader immediately connects with Nora’s confusion and grief and empathizes with her need for answers. Though Nora’s thought process isn’t always clear, readers willingly give her the benefit of the doubt because they understand the gravity of her situation.
Ms. Milchman delivers another emotional punch when she reveals the truth behind Brendan’s suicide. Allowing this scene to unfold in real time permits the reader to experience the pain and longing Nora feels as she sees her husband alive again, hears his voice, and watches him do the job he loved. In truth, it was the most poignant moment in the novel. As Nora views a videotaped recording of one of Brendan’s last acts as a policeman, readers get their first uncensored look at Nora’s husband and witness indisputable evidence of the procedural impropriety that, by this point in the story, is being called into question.
The use of setting to symbolize the harsh reality Nora faces, the cold reception she receives from the locals, and the secrets buried in this small, out-of-the-way town was a masterstroke for the author. The unpredictable weather underscores the tension in more than one scene, and adds depth of meaning throughout the story.
Though Milchman sets the stage for an edge-of-your-seat thriller, the absence of certain elements keeps the novel from following through with its initial promise. One of the most disappointing factors for me was the lack of connection I felt to the lead character. Sympathetic to her plight, I was eager to join this young widow on her quest, but as the story progressed, I found myself more frustrated than intrigued. Her desire to find answers seemed to be the only motivation propelling her forward. While that is admirable, it is not enough to convince readers to invest in her story. In many ways, Nora leaves us with more unanswered questions than Brendan. Showing readers more of who Nora is instead of focusing solely on what she’s trying to accomplish would have endeared the character to the readers more, compelling them not just to read about Nora, but to admire her as well.
Another frustration was the lack of solid clues. Many of the hints dropped were obscure, and, thus, hard to follow. Other pieces of information clearly held import for the character, but their significance was not made evident to the reader. While Nora’s random approach to investigation adds to the story’s authenticity, the ambiguous approach to revealing information to the reader does not. This confusion detracts from the narrative, making the reader feel like he is on the outside looking in.
Ms. Milchman herself explains that every novel is a journey, and as a debut author, this is her first step on that path. While this was a rocky start, her mastery of those original core elements proves she is headed in the right direction. No doubt her next step will be stronger still.
To find out more about Jenny Milchman, visit her website.
~ Vickie Price Taylor