I'll Be Watching You
Do even the closest mother-daughter relationships involve a child who truly tells their parent everything? That’s the central question behind Courtney Evan Tate’s latest thriller I’ll Be Watching You.
It’s a normal evening for Emmy and Leah Fisher. They’re sitting on the porch swing, taking in the beauty of the summer night. Emmy is relaxing with a glass of wine, exhausted from a full day’s work at her Florida Keys beachside inn; fifteen-year-old Leah is mildly stressing about the start of sophomore year the next day. Emmy authorizes a swim, knowing the activity will take the edge off Leah’s nerves and help her sleep. It isn’t the first time moonlight reflecting off the water has lured Leah to the beach in their backyard. It’s not the first time Emmy has said yes to a night-time swim. But it will be the last.
Emmy is distracted for only a few minutes but that’s all it takes for Leah to be disappear. Search and Rescue spend hours diving in the dark waters near their home, but they find no clue as to what occurred. There is talk of a possible shark attack, or of her having been overcome by a strong wave – no one is sure how it happened, but all agree on the result: Leah is dead, Emmy’s sweet girl gone forever.
While friends and family are anxious to give Emmy advice on how to mourn, she determines to do it at her own pace and in her own manner. One decision, however, is taken from her hands. Even a week after Leah’s death, Emmy hasn’t been able to enter the girl’s room. But when she is forced to retrieve something from her daughter’s dresser, she makes a startling discovery. Leah’s laptop has been charging; Emmy’s touch brings it to life since it had only been “sleeping”. The now bright page shows a blog called Island Girl Ramblings. A blog which talks with painful, frightening clarity of a dark, dangerous relationship between an older, abusive man and a frightened young woman. The girl has clearly been forced to perform sexual acts she did not wish to participate in. With shaking fingers, Emmy clicks on the About Me tab. Leah looks smiling back at her from the picture at the top of the page.
What happens next is easily to be expected. Emmy becomes obsessed with finding the man who was abusing her daughter. She has plenty of suspects to choose from. Derek, the long-term guest who saw Leah every day. Nico, the flirtatious owner of Leah’s favorite ocean-side deli. Hutch, the handsome pastor who runs a popular youth group. It could be anyone, but Emmy is determined that whoever it is, they won’t get a chance to do to another girl what they did to her daughter.
Ms. Tate gets a lot of things right here. Both the death of a teenager and sexual abuse are dark, angst ridden subjects, but the author concentrates her lens not on the horror of what’s happening but on the satisfaction of figuring out who did it and bringing them to justice. That makes the subject matter a little easier to read about. In Leah, Emmy, Leah’s friends and the suspect men, we find intriguing three-dimensional, nuanced characters who are likeable and relatable. That’s one of the more chilling aspects of the tale: our three suspects are wonderful, successful, charismatic, enticing, handsome guys. They would make awesome romance heroes, which makes thinking of them as possible villains all the more sinister. I really appreciated this aspect of the tale. Many times, when authors write villains, they try to make the fact that they are evil leap off the page. Here, the author went to great pains to show that actually, this type of corruption often hides behind the friendly smile of someone we trusted enough to let them near our child. The author also does a good job of creating her setting: she doesn’t just capture the look of her location but the atmosphere. There is a sense of an almost forced laid back nature to everything, as though the warm sunshine, pounding waves, and beauty of the landscape demand that everything be done on ‘island time’. Ms. Tate’s prose is clear, concise and engaging. Some books I have to slog through, flinching as the author hits sour notes or gets me snarled in fancy, opaque prose that goes nowhere. This one was an easy, fast read with writing complex enough to keep it interesting and smooth enough to let readers sail through it. I finished it in one sitting.
But once I put it down and started thinking about it, I realized there were a few problems with the story. I don’t want to list them all, but three were egregious enough to merit a specific mention. The villain, when we find him, has an interesting backstory that I would have loved to explore more, but we are raced through the denouement, which left the discovery of whodunit feeling hollow. I also felt the author could have done a lot more with the disturbing reality of small-town living. In one part of the tale, Emmy expresses frustration with the lack of police interest in Leah’s sexual abuse. Derek responds by telling her, “I’ve been here long enough to know that islanders sick together. Leah is gone, and that guy is still here. They probably won’t want to stir up trouble.” Emmy admits, “It’s sad because I know Derek’s right.” I felt that subject could have used some additional exploration. Police not wanting to investigate a sexual predator is a huge problem, but instead it serves as a patsy for why Emmy is singlehandedly managing the investigation. One last quibble is with a character who interweaves throughout the tale but is never developed enough. Emmy’s mom was apparently a “home wrecker”, a beautiful woman who slept with every man in town. The lack of exploration into who she was and why she did what she did coupled with the fact that even Emmy essentially condemns her as a slut gives the book that ‘let’s all judge the bad girl’ slant that a lot of readers dislike. I don’t think that was the author’s plan, but unfortunately, not doing a better job of exploring the backstory here gave this part of the tale a judgmental feel I am sure was not intended.
Fortunately, those flaws do not destroy the tale. I still found myself completely invested in I’ll be Watching You and while I wasn’t wowed by the book, I definitely liked it. I think fans of dark mysteries will enjoy it as well.