The Perfect Stranger
Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is billed as being a sequel to her highly successful All The Missing Girls – although as far as I can tell, there are no common characters or plot threads, unless one counts the fact that one of the characters in The Perfect Stranger is a “missing girl”! So if, like me, you haven’t read the earlier book, you won’t have any problems getting into this one, as it’s a standalone, and is a thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing read that asks some interesting questions. How well we can ever know another person? How honest and accurate are our self-perceptions? Just how far would you go for a friend who’d done a lot for you?
Leah Stevens worked as a journalist in Boston until a story blew up in her face. She had been investigating the deaths – seemingly suicides – of four young college students which she was convinced were murders, but when she refused to reveal a key source, she was slapped with a restraining order and the paper threatened with a lawsuit. Betrayed – it was her boyfriend who tipped off their editor – with no job and nowhere to go, Leah is relieved when she runs into Emmy Grey, someone she’d lived with shortly after leaving college some eight years ago.
Over several drinks at Emmy’s place, Leah gathers that her friend has just come out of a bad relationship and is keen to get out of Boston, too, so they stick a pin in a map and settle on Western Pennsylvania as the place they can both make a fresh start. Leah gets a job as a school teacher (and I have to say, the author’s comments about various aspects of the profession struck a real chord with me!) while Emmy drifts about, cleaning houses, working at a local motel… and because their schedules are so different, with Emmy often coming home as Leah is going out, they rarely see each other. Even so, Leah gets the impression that all is not well with her friend; she’s tense and on edge and it’s like she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Because their schedules are so different, it takes Leah a few days to realise that Emmy hasn’t been home for some time. The post-it notes stuck on the wall reminding her the rent is due and various phone messages from Emmy’s boyfriend have fallen down rather than been removed, and Leah begins to worry for her friend’s safety. But if she files a missing persons’ report, it will lead to questions about Leah’s own situation, and those are questions she is not willing to answer. When a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to her is attacked on the other side of the lake from where Leah lives and a fellow member of staff at the school is the prime suspect, she is forced to accept that she can no longer distance herself and fly under the radar if she is to find out what happened to her friend.
Leah opens up to Kyle Donovan, the handsome young detective assigned to the assault case, telling him about Emmy and her fear that something has happened to her. But as the investigation proceeds it becomes apparent that even though Leah had believed herself to be very close to Emmy, she really didn’t know her at all, and worse, the police are starting to believe that she doesn’t actually exist. Leah knows that once her past is revealed, and it’s known that she is suspected of having invented a source, that belief is only going to be reinforced; yet Leah can’t give up. She’s got to prove that Emmy is real and then find out what has happened to her in order to prove her credibility and clear her own name. And in doing so, she starts to question her own long-held certainties about herself, her drive to seek the truth, her belief in her ability to read people and get them to open up to her… and to realise that she has been a victim of her own hubris.
Megan Miranda does a terrific job in this book of creating and maintaining an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty. She skilfully drip-feeds the truth about Leah’s situation, hinting at what she’s running from and slowly fitting the pieces of the puzzle together – although it’s not until well into the story that we finally discover the nature of the terrifying events that set her on the path she’s now travelling. And there’s also the fact that Leah is somewhat of an unreliable narrator, something the author plays with so cleverly that there are times the reader even questions the fact of Emmy’s existence, wondering if the police are right and she’s just a figment of Leah’s obviously active imagination.
On the negative side, however, there are times when there is perhaps just a little too much going on, there are a few plot-threads that are not suitably resolved, and a couple of large inconsistencies that really had me scratching my head – and not in a good way. The mystery is full of satisfying twists and turns, with a few suitably gobsmacking moments of realisation along the way, but the ending is somewhat anticlimactic. Things end well for Leah and Kyle, but it’s all a little low-key, so while I was pleased that everything was nicely tied up, I’d expected something a little… well, more.
With all that said, however, I enjoyed The Perfect Stranger enough to recommend it to fans of strongly written, atmospheric mysteries. It caught my interest early and kept me turning the pages, so I’m definitely interested in reading more by this author.