One Breath Away
I used to read mysteries on a regular basis, until a particularly bad read did me in. Over the years, I have dipped my toes back into the genre, but it is difficult finding a book in that happy medium – having more than a friendly busybody amateur sleuth but less than serial killer mayhem. I was pleased to discover that Heather Gudenkauf’s One Breath Away falls in that perfect fit category for me.
The drudgery of living on a farm and in a small town left Holly miserable and anxious to leave. So at seventeen she leaves home with a boyfriend, vowing never to return. But after a kitchen fire lands her in the hospital with second and third degree burns, her children have no place to go except home to her parents in Iowa, thus ending a fifteen year estrangement. Holly’s ex-husband offers to keep Augustine(“Augie”), his and Holly’s daughter, but wants nothing to do with her son – the evidence of Holly’s infidelity that ultimately led to the demise of their marriage. Augie at thirteen has a strong sense of responsibility and she is not going to let her dad fracture her family even more. She’d rather live on a farm – the location of her mother’s horror stories – than be separated from her eight year old brother.
Will Thwaite never really figured out why his relationship with his daughter Holly went south. His experience as a soldier in Vietnam shaped his relationship with his kids. Knowing that the men he saw die would give anything to tell their wives and children that they loved them one more time, he made a point of visiting his children’s rooms each night and telling them that. But at age twelve, Holly discarded her look of adoration and skeptically tossed away his words. Now that he has a chance of a do-over with his grandkids, he will do anything to keep them safe.
On the last day of school before spring break, the town’s children are placed in jeopardy. Law enforcement officials struggle to gather information with limited resources and deal with distraught parents as they question why nothing is being done to bring their children home. Officer Meg Barrett first hears about the lockdown at her daughter’s school from an ex-lover and news reporter when he calls her and solicits an exclusive. Waiting to make contact with the intruder is agonizing for her and rumors of disgruntled ex-husbands and bullied students give Molly a place to start looking for clues, but it is the right place?
What I enjoyed about the book is that the author shifts from character to character as they deal with the current crisis. And what great characters. I especially enjoyed the fact that they are multi-faceted – each with regrets, mistakes, anxieties and fears. Augie is resourceful, foolish, and proud with an overwhelming urgency to protect her brother. She is determined not to love her grandfather because she owes her mother her loyalty no matter how kind he is. Schoolteacher Mrs. Oliver provides a bit of irreverence with her antiquated perceptions of how a teacher should look and act. Still, her love and caring shines through. Holly has made plenty of mistakes and at times her daughter is more responsible than she is, but she has created a loving family.
While tension and suspense take a back burner to characterization and the history of the cast, I appreciated the insight on interpersonal relationships. If I had a critique, I would suggest the author include more unease and perhaps hysteria because the potential victims are children
While there are a couple of red herrings, I ultimately figured out the antagonist. Not that I think that the author tried to really bury his identity. Even though I guessed correctly before the ending, I was very pleased with the plotting. I hate it the stories involve a convoluted resolution, like the author pulled someone out of a hat just so the reader is surprised.
With strong writing, excellent characterization, and believable conflicts, I am happy to recommend One Breath Away. I definitely will be glomming Gudenkauf’s earlier releases.