Hunting Annabelle is a début psychological thriller which examines the struggles a young Korean American wages against the dark desires of his soul. Sean Suh spends his day at a place called Four Corners, a location he calls “a cheap Disneyland rip-off”. He likes to draw the people wandering through the park, although the one thing he can never capture on paper is the very thing that attracts him to them. Sean sees auras; the seething red of an angry parent, the calm blue of a happy couple. He has never seen one like hers before though: “Tendrils of copper roll off her like fog, and close up something shadowy and elusive lurks behind them.” He follows her across the park, catching up to her in the Ghosts of Texas past exhibit, where she introduces herself as Annabelle and they bond while discussing the biography of serial killer Deadly Annie. This is their beginning.
But is it also their end? Just a few days later, Sean sees Annabelle snatched off the street. His schizophrenia diagnosis and juvenile record have the police deeming him an unreliable witness and dismissing his testimony. His mother insists he up his meds and see his psychiatrist more frequently. Everyone thinks he’s hallucinating or worse, covering up his own culpability, but Sean knows what he saw. He begins a quest to find the missing Annabelle and destroy whatever dark forces have taken her from him. No matter what it costs, he will have her back.
Maggie Boyd and Shannon Dyer read Hunting Annabelle and got together to share their thoughts on the novel.
Maggie: The book centers primarily around Sean, his struggle to control the dark forces within him and how others around him respond to him due to his past. I had a lot of different feelings about all of that. In regard to how people treated him, I was appalled by the racism of some but mostly, I felt people were responding to him with a certain empathy and kindness. Given his past, I didn’t feel like they were being especially cruel or unsympathetic. What were your thoughts on that?
Shannon: I was most impressed with Ms. Heard’s ability to show us the wide variety of responses Sean elicited on a daily basis. There was some obvious and appalling racism, but I was also struck by the kindness and empathy he was given. He displayed some mannerisms that could have been distressing to people, but I never felt he was being unfairly victimized because of them.
Maggie: One of the characters whose responses to Sean are held up for our critique is that of his mother, Dr. Suh. I am sure it was not deliberate, but the text seemed very judgmental of her job: the fact that she had nannies caring for Sean, the fact that she didn’t accept pseudo-science over established medical practice, and the fact that she used her wealth to help him all seemed to be criticized. In fact, I would say professional women in general – Sean’s psychiatrist, his mother and Annabelle – are portrayed rather negatively. Did you get that same vibe? If not, which professional female character do you feel was treated positively?
Shannon: I definitely saw this with Dr. Suh. She was judged quite harshly for her choices, both personal and professional. I wanted people to give her the benefit of the doubt, to actually see her as a mother doing the best she could for her son. I didn’t like everything she did, but I do believe she was acting from a place of love and protectiveness. I didn’t see other female characters tarred with the same brush though.
Maggie: Sean is Korean American but to be honest, I wasn’t sure why. In every respect, the character is American and the only way his ethnicity affected the story was that it enabled Ms. Heard to show the bigotry of certain people around him. I rolled my eyes a bit at this as I felt the author used an overtly heavy hand with the issue. Subtle racism is much more typical, insidious and troublesome. What did you think of how Sean’s ethnicity was used within the story?
Shannon: I was pleased that the author didn’t gloss over our society’s negative reaction to racial differences by making Sean’s heritage a nonissue. Sean freely admits that he isn’t really in touch with his Korean culture, and that works in the context of the narrative.
Maggie: The story is set in 1986, enabling the author to avoid forensic details like cell phone locations, and DNA evidence, but beyond that I didn’t feel the author did much with the time period. What are your thoughts on that?
Shannon: I definitely think the story could have been imbued with a stronger sense of time. We know it’s 1986 because the author tells us, but aside from the lack of cell phones, laptop computers, and electronic communications, the time period wasn’t easily recognizable. The story could have been set any time before the advent of today’s technology.
Maggie: Sean as our primary character is the only person I felt we really knew, and he is most definitely an anti-hero. Honestly, I kept expecting a twist that would give us a moment of clarity as to why we should like him or root for him in any way and I didn’t receive such a moment. Even with the issue regarding his diagnosis, I didn’t accept the new explanation and while I pitied him for his difficulties, I was infuriated by how he was handling them. What were your thoughts on Sean?
Shannon: The term anti-hero describes Sean perfectly. I found him incredibly difficult to like, especially once we were given glimpses into his past. Its clear life wasn’t easy for him, and I did feel badly for him because of it, but the obsessive nature of his inner dialogue and his inability to consider the consequences of his actions proved difficult for me to get my head around. Even so, I found his story quite riveting.
Maggie: I agree, he definitely held your attention. Stacey Hetzel, the former friend from Lone Herman, gave a perfect assessment of Annabelle: “She’s always the one judging, holier than thou, prissy. . . stuck up.” I thought that pretty much nailed the character along with the definition of “messed up family.” What did you think of Annabelle?
Shannon: I have conflicting feelings about Annabelle. Since we mainly see her through Sean’s somewhat distorted lens, I never felt I really knew her as a person. She’s a flawed character to be sure, but that’s a gross generalization. Her family is quite dysfunctional, and Annabelle is a product of that dysfunction. I would have liked a clearer look into her psyche. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have made me like her, but it might have cleared up some of her motivations.
Maggie: That feeds into my biggest complaint about the book, which is that I kept waiting for a twist that never came. I needed something that would put the tale into perspective and help me to feel something for the two leads beyond a little pity and a whole lot of disgust. What was your overall assessment of the story?
Shannon: The novel did possess some twists, but I didn’t completely buy into many of them. I got the distinct impression Ms. Heard was trying too hard to shock and confuse the reader. I love twists that come out of nowhere, but they have to make a certain amount of sense when I look back on them, and most of the plot twists employed here didn’t work well for me.
Maggie: I think the book is created to be for fans of Dexter or maybe Breaking Bad, although I felt it lacked the nuance found in those shows. I really struggled with my final grade. The prose is good and the beginning of the story intriguing. It’s certainly very readable but when you set the book down, you start to see all the flaws. Ultimately, I came up with a C+. I could easily be swayed to go a bit higher or a lot lower because I really struggled to pull all the elements into grade format.
Shannon: I had similar difficulties. The story is very readable, and I was eager to uncover the truth along with Sean. However, once I started evaluating the story in a critical way, its many flaws became quite apparent. It’s one of those books that didn’t manage to live up to its potential, and so I’m giving it a C+ as well. I can’t completely discount it, but neither can I give it a wholehearted recommendation.