If you read and loved Sally Hepworth's The Family Next Door, you won't want to miss Not That I Could Tell, the latest novel from Jessica Strawser. The two books, while not identical, share similar themes, and neither one was at all easy to put down.
Five neighborhood women gather around a backyard fire pit one evening, thrilled to be free of the responsibilities of their homes and families. They spend the night sharing wine and conversation, and by the time they stumble back home, each woman knows something very personal about the other women in the group. But then, one of them – Kristin - goes missing, taking her two young children with her, and the police begin asking uncomfortable questions about that conversation, causing each of the remaining women to wonder how well she really knows her friends.
Kristin, a friendly mother of twins , was always happy to give a struggling fellow mother a bit of helpful advice. Everyone agrees she had a ready smile and a warm greeting for everyone, but no one can admit to really knowing her well. She was the kind of person who learned a lot about her friends while revealing very little about her private life.
When Clara - who happens to be Kristin's closest neighbour - learns of the other woman's disappearance, she's understandably stunned. She is determined to tell the police everything she knows, but it soon becomes obvious she knows practically nothing. She's aware that Kristin and her husband Paul are in the midst of divorce proceedings, but she's unable to say what caused them to separate. She's pretty sure no one was threatening Kristin, but when pressed, she's unable to say why she feels this way. Suddenly, Clara is forced to call into question everything she thought she knew about Kristin and her family, even if doing so brings up terrible memories of a traumatic incident she's worked hard to put behind her.
Izzy is new to the neighborhood. She moved in after a personal tragedy that we learn about in bits and pieces as the story progresses. It's pretty clear she's in love with her sister's husband, but there's a lot more to Izzy's story that you'll have to read in order to figure out. All Izzy wants is a fresh start away from her family and the pressure they're putting on her to make nice with her sister and her husband. Maybe in a new place she'll be able to make some friends and finally move on, but Kristin's disappearance brings Izzy to the attention of Kristin's soon-to-be ex husband Paul, and she suddenly finds herself far more involved in the investigation than she wants to be.
The neighborhood as a whole seems certain that Paul had something to do with whatever happened to Kristin and the twins, but Izzy is determined to keep an open mind. There's something about Paul that calls to her, and she doesn't want to make judgements without having all the pertinent information. She and Paul begin spending time together, and, as time passes and the investigation goes nowhere, Izzy begins to think everyone has jumped to the wrong conclusion. What if Paul is really the loving husband and father he claims to be, and what if Clara and the rest of Kristin's friends, not to mention the police, are turning him into a kind of scapegoat? Izzy doesn't know anything for sure, but she decides to stand by Paul until actual evidence proves him to be the villain everyone seems all too willing to make him out to be.
If you pick this book up expecting a super intense psychological thriller, you’ll probably be disappointed. Kristin's disappearance is the catalyst around which the story is centered, but it's far from the sole focus of the book. We do eventually learn the truth about what actually happened to her, but we also see how her disappearance changes the lives of Clara and Izzy, and I'd say that's what Ms. Strawser seems to want readers to pay attention to. Even so, Not That I Could Tell is quite a bit darker than many of the women's fiction books I've read, something potential readers should be aware of.
The town of Yellow Springs, where the story takes place, is quite quirky and fun. It's the kind of place many of us secretly dream of living, a place where people aren't afraid to be themselves. People of different races, sexual orientations, and spiritual beliefs mix and mingle without the kind of hate and discrimination that plague so many people in real life. Sure, bad things happen there, but they're definitely more the exception than the rule.
I love the way the author chooses to develop the backstories for the main characters. We learn things a little at a time, and this works well given the focus on the secrets people keep from those they love. I didn't find any of the characters to be all good or all bad. Instead, Ms. Strawser has created a group of people who fit somewhere in that gray area most real people inhabit.
I loved pretty much everything about Not That I Could Tell, and I hope many of you will pick it up and love it as much as I did. It's not necessarily action-packed, but I was okay with that. It's a deftly plotted story of friendship and family that is sure to keep you reading late into the night and part of what made it so incredibly good is the slow unfolding of events that grabbed me and refused to let me go. Go ahead and give it a try. I'm pretty sure you won't regret it.
Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/Apple Books/Kobo
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